By Walter Saul
One quick news item before we jump back in –
Cedille Records in Chicago has just released a splendid CD, Dreams of a New Day, featuring baritone Will Liverman and pianist Paul Sanchez. It hit the street on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, an appropriate date for this celebration of Black art music composers through the ages from Henry Burleigh to Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers own Shawn E. Okpebholo, the youngest composer on the album. The interpretations of Liverman and Sanchez will enchant you and then smack you in the gut as this music takes on the history of Blacks in this nation. I cannot do justice to this album right now, but will tell you that Okpebholo’s Two Black Churches is a must-hear. He mercifully understates the tragedies of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and the 2015 Charleston massacre, but the heart-rending power is there. Liverman unfolds these stories delicately yet massively and Sanchez goes from quiet Black church music to impassioned drama with fearsome power. And Okpebholo keeps good company on this CD: all the other composers are at their best and most powerful in this awesome collection of art songs. You can acquire the CD or download from Dreams of a New Day — Songs by Black Composers – Cedille Records.
Review: CFAMC 2020 Virtual International Conference
October 17, 2020
The Second Concert – music by Jerry Casey
Jerry Casey contributed three excellent works to the program: “You Speak of Color,” from Seven Signs, Suite for Brass and Percussion, and Life and Love. We were blessed to have actual performances of the latter two and hope for a live performance of Seven Signs, a mini-opera which promises to be a significant event. How could it not, as it is based on the seven explicitly named and described miraculous signs of Jesus in the Gospel of John? I am not sure if the work is complete, but we experienced the sixth sign, “You Speak of Color,” which brings the drama of John 9, Jesus’ opening the blind man’s eyes, to life with but a tenor solo/actor and cello. The tenor, representing the blind man in Casey’s retelling of this story, vividly recreates the terror of smeared mud on his eyes and the treacherous trip to Siloam to wash it out, and then the amazing blessing of color, an alien concept in his life until that moment. Casey runs the gamut of musical languages in conveying the story, particularly through the cello that serves as the narrator as well as the other characters in the drama, especially the suspicious and prejudiced Pharisees as they interrogate and investigate the formerly blind man. There is gentle and comforting tonality in the blind man’s familiar surroundings, threatening parallel fifths and dark organum for his blindness and the harshness of begging, and downright ugly and nasty free atonality of Arnold Schönberg to depict the interrogation and the exclusion from the synagogue and family.
Suite for Brass and Percussion, admirably presented by Amy Baker and Tom McKay, trumpets, Helen Doerring and Vivian Baker, horns, and Linda Dauwlder-Dachtyl, percussion, is in three short movements: Fanfare and Grotesque March, Somber Shades, and Blazing Fury. The opening Fanfare, which also concludes the entire work, features heroic battle cries in the quartal harmonies and melodies reminiscent of Paul Hindemith. A percussion solo leads into a slightly more discordant march with two motives, the second of which is cleverly inverted. It is hard to believe that only pairs of trumpets and horns are involved; the grand sound invokes the image of a full brass choir. Baker is especially brilliant in her command of the many high notes for the first trumpet, and Dauwlder-Dachtyl for the many different roles she plays as a percussionist, jumping from one group of instruments to another in a heartbeat.
The pianissimo emergence of the gong’s first appearance sets the dark tone for “Somber Shades.” This leads into a fugue in free atonality where the ladders of fourths are challenged by sinuous chromatic wanderings. With the muted trumpets and hushed horns we are ushered into a very different world of sound. Another element emerges as well: the retrograde. For, just as gently as the fugue rose out of the somber soft strokes of the gong, so it sinks back into the nether as the gong escorts the movement back into the fog.
The triumphal determination of the opening movement returns, with even more energy in the finale, “Blazing Fury.” The Hindemithian harmonic language of the first movement is recalled, even as the main motive from the Grotesque March now sets the foundation for another fugue. This leads into the recapitulation of the opening Fanfare and then we realize that the entire Suite is itself a palindrome. This captivating work and performance may be heard at https://www.jerrycaseymusic.com/ch-005/, which also includes some excellent program notes.
Casey’s music ventures into so many different realms. Life and Love is a sensitive setting of the marvelous poem of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a poet whose much more familiar “How do I Love Thee?” we have both set to music. Knowing the unbridled optimism and joy of that poem, I was surprised by this stark contrast of mere life with love’s touch presented here, which has more of the dark hues of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Love is not all.” For some reason, the Db major tonality of this work reminded me of Clara Schumann’s “Liebst du um Schönheit” (“If you love for beauty”), which, like Casey’s song, celebrates requited love. But, is it Db major? This song has an ominous beginning, with troubling parallel sevenths down low and a cold F Phrygian tone that powerfully portrays death. A couple of “wrong” notes, in the fashion of Igor Stravinsky, highlight the bleak mood. But when “love came by,” all those dark flats are booted away as we enter the translucent optimism of the F Lydian mode. The music happily wanders over the tonal spectrum and even into impressionistic sonorities as the mood brightens and warms up. Love’s healing power begins to transform the reluctant narrator, as the music returns to its opening strain and then to the warm optimism, now a whole step higher. A final wandering leads to the victorious declamation of “LOVE” in the joyous scale of G Mixolydian, ending on one of Hindemith’s – and Casey’s – beloved quartal chords, a Gsus, which, of course, is as far from Db’s five flats as any tonality or modality could be! Brava to Casey for this splendid and optimistic art song, as well as Rebecca Keck, soprano, and Eileen Huston, piano, who bring this song so powerfully to life! You can hear an excerpt of this song and read Casey’s enlightening notes about it at https://www.jerrycaseymusic.com/v-001/. And, while you’re there, why not invest in her CD?
In our next installment, we will examine music by Jack Ballard, Richard Cerchia, and Andy Robinson