Dallas — Voices of Change presented a kaleidoscope of a concert, full of widely different music that had one thing in common — all of it was by black composers. The program was entitled My Soul Dances and covered a period of more than 70 years.
The program opened with David Baker’s Blues (Deliver my Soul) for violin and piano. Baker is refered to as a “Third Stream” composer who wrote with equal helpings of jazz, gospel, and improvisation all grafted onto classical roots and this piece certainly falls into that category.
It was derived from his Psalm 22 for chorus and was only a few minutes long, but he packed a lot of music into such a short time. Violinist and Artistic Director Maria Schleuning, assisted by pianist Liudmila Georgievskaya, made the most of it, right from the opening cadenza to the “halleluiah” conclusion.
Next was Seven Dances, a work by Brain Nabors. This was a premiere of sorts since it was the winner of the National Rapido! Composition Contest. This competition gives participating composers a short period of time to write a short work for the instrumental ensemble assigned at the time. Nabors’ prize-winning piece recently had its official world premiere a week ago played by the Atlanta Chamber Players. VOC is one of the sponsoring organizations, so Dallas audiences got the second performance. His winning composition only had three of the dances, but he added four more for concert use.
Nabors’ dances are loosely based on the tango, slow foxtrot, hip-hop groove, waltz, salsa, a slow march and a hoe-down. All of these dances were not exactly for ballroom use, and a march is not really a dance — but they were all quite delightful. The waltz was the best and actually might work with us on our feet. The march kept us quiet in that it was more funeral than military. The salsa movement had a lot of pizzicato writing, reminiscent of a guitar. The hoe-down asked for the players to clap along but gave the work a final flourish.
Flutist Ebonee Thomas did a fine job playing both the notes and all of the frequent extended techniques that the composer required. She was joined by clarinetist Paul Garner and cellist Jolyon Pegis, who spent a lot of time playing in the bottom of the instrument and sliding around.
George Walker’s String Quartet No.1 was the most substantial piece on the program. This performance was played in his memory because he just died this year. Walker is not a name that even dedicated concertgoers now, even though he certainly deserved wider fame. He taught at the University of Colorado, Peabody Institute, and University of Delaware, and was the chair of the music department at Rutgers University from 1969 to 1992. Oh, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1996 — the first African-American composer to win. Written in 1946, his string quartet has names for the three movements: Up-Tempo, Slow Dance and Soft Shoe. The middle slow movement took off and has a life of its one as his “Lyric for Strings,” much in the manner of Samuel Barber’s string quartet extraction – “Adagio of Strings.” (The string quartet itself has a subtitle of “Lyric.”)
Walker’s voice is basically conventional tonality with modern dissonances added like a squeeze of lemon. It is a complex work, with great independence of the four parts and filled with interesting music throughout. The last movement sports some jazz influences and combines energetic music with a beautiful lyric second theme.
This performance by Schleuning and Pegis with second violinist Lydia Umlauf and violist David Sywak needed more rehearsal to pull off this magnificently composed string quartet. There was little attention to the overall architecture and some glaring intonation troubles here and there. However, it was wonderful to hear it played and hopefully this will engender future performances by established ensembles. It deserves it.
Composer Valerie Coleman’s 2018 Fanmi Imen for flute and piano left little doubt that the flute was the composer’s own instrument. It was virtuosic in both technical challenges, able to spin phrases and to play with equal quality in all of the instruments’ ranges. Thomas gave a brilliant performance of the flute part, ably assisted by Georgievskaya. The music brought the French Conservatoire style of instrumental composition to mind, but with a modernist overlay.
The experimental piece on the program was T. J. Anderson’s Echoes for oboe and bassoon from 1988. It had elaborate directions for the two players: oboist Erin Hannigan and bassoonist Ted Soluri. They were instructed to stand as far apart as possible, which they did. There isn’t a score, just the two separate parts of assigned motivic materials that they were to play as they wished as long as it was contained in discrete 15-second intervals. The composer asked them to pay careful attention to a stopwatch, but I couldn’t see if they did that from my seat. It was more clever than musically interesting. I was reminded of the life and professional partnership of the avant-garde composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. On occasion, they would work separately and then only add the music to the dance for the performance, reveling in the similarities and the disconnects.
The program ended with the very well-known Three Rags by Scott Joplin played with dedication, but a little too strictly by Georgievskaya. However, it was a delightful non-challenging ending to a concert that really stretched our horizons.