Saturday 13 October 2018

Portrait of a life (or many): Art songs from the African diaspora

Margaret Bonds
Margaret Bonds
Portrait of a life (or many): Art songs from the African diaspora; Nadine Benjamin, Nigel Foster, Michael Harper; St John's Smith Square Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 October 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Art songs from Black composers from the last 100 years, tracing experiences in America, the Caribbean and the UK

Whilst there are Black singers in the operatic community we usually hear from them within a Western classical narrative, we really get to hear from what might be called the Black experience or experiences. Yet there are composers writing within this tradition, voices which are not often heard, so it was with great pleasure that I was at St John's Smith Square on Friday 12 October 2018 when soprano Nadine Benjamin, speaker Michael Harvey and pianist Nigel Foster presented Portrait of a life (or many): Art songs from the African diaspora.

This was a sequence of readings and songs from Black artists, some American, some influences by the Harlem Renaissance and Civil Rights movement and some contemporary British. So we heard songs by Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989), William Grant Still (1895-1978), Florence Price(1887-1953), Nailah Nombeko, H. Leslie Adams (born 1932), Dominque Le Gendre, Shirley Thompson (born 1958), Brittney Elizabeth Boykin (born 1989), Barbara Sherrill and Byron Motley, and Errollyn Wallen (botn 1958), readings from writers including Derek Walcott and Nikki Giovvanni, and song texts by writers including Derek Walcott, Maya Angelou, William Blake and Langston Hughes.

Undine Smith Moore
Undine Smith Moore
Following a reading of Mari Evans' Who can be Born Black we heard Three Dream Portraits, settings of poems by Langston Hughes by Margaret Bonds who studied at the Juilliard and with Roy Harris and who collaborated regularly with Langston Hughes. Three Dream Portraits (1959) were three lyrically melancholy songs with hints of blues, spirituals and more in music which aptly complemented Hughes poems which examined what it was to be Black in America. A strikingly different voice and the final song, a setting of Langston Hughes' I, Too, Sing America brought out a voice which is rarely heard in the concert hall.

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

The grand-daughter of slaves, Undine Smith Moore was a prolific composer, though only a fraction of her work was published in her liftime. Often inspired by Spirituals, we heard her imaginative versions of the powerfully direct Watch and Pray and the infectiously engaging Come Down Angels, plus  Lyric for true love which was more of a free rhapsody.

William Grant Still is perhaps a better known name, he was the first American composer to have an opera performed by New York City Opera. His song Grief was more directly an art-song, though you could detect American influences in the background. Florence Price was the first African-American woman to be recognised as a symphonic composer and have a composition played by a major orchestra. Night seemed quite influenced by Faure, with its impressionistic piano writing.

For the second part of the programme we moved from historical composers to those of the present day, exploring various different backgrounds and experiences, always complemented by Michael Harvey's apposite readings.

Nailah Nombeko is a young American composer, her setting of Blake's The Sick Rose was thoughtful and effective, banishing all thought of Britten's version. H. Leslie Adams' Edna St Vincent Millay setting For you there is no song was a lyrical and melodic piece.

 Dominique Le Gendre is a London-based Trinidad-born composer and her 'White Egrets' from Songs of the Islands is a setting of the St. Lucian poet, playwright and Nobel Prize winner Sir Derek Walcott, a lyrical piece in free arioso style though in the St John's acoustic the details of the words had a tendency to disappear. Shirley Thompson is an English composer of Jamaican descent, her song 'Tapestry' from the cycle Tapestry is a setting of the Guyanese poet Grace Nichols, a powerful and striking piece which made me want to hear the whole cycle.

Brittney Elizabeth Boykin is an American composer whose Five Maya Angelou Songs, sets poems by the great American poet, singer, memoirist and civil rights activist. We heard four of the songs, moving from hints of spirituals and blues, through the hauntingly simple to a final song with strong dance hints.

Mae's Rent Party by American composer Barbara Sherrill and singer/songwriter Byron Motley was a really fun piece, just a bluesy vocal line over a spare piano bass, it was a lovely comic description of a party with a great punch-line. We finished with My Feet May Take a Little While by the British Errollyn Wallen, a quietly thoughtful piece whose folk-like melody hinted a both Spirituals and at English folk-song.

Throughout Nadine Benjamin gave strong performances, despite having to sit on a stool having not only debuted as Clara in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess the night before, but also sprained her ankle. She brought a strong sense of identification with each song, so that the various experiences were powerfully conveyed. Benjamin was finely partnered by Nigel Foster who moved through the various styles of the music from complex and dense to spare to bluesy and more, with consumate artistry. Michael Harper's selection of readings was always apposite, often amusing yet pointed too.

The programme drew a varied and diverse audience, including the Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, and I certainly hope that the performers are able to develop the programme further.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Crowd-funding & collaboration: new choral music from Lumen  - interview
  • Double concerto for bandoneon and violin (★★★½) - CD review
  • The choral music of Richard Allain (★★★½) - CD review
  • Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots returns to the Paris Opera - Opera review
  • Modified Rapture: Verdi's Aida from the Met (★★★½) - Opera review
  • The Emperor's Fiddler - violinist David Irving on historical approaches on his new disc - interview
  • Schubert's Winter Journey - Robin Tritschler and Malcolm Martineau at Wigmore Hall  - (★★★★★Concert review
  • Swan songs - Gerald Finley and Julius Drake at Temple Song  (★★★★★)  - Concert review
  • Love & Obsession: Robert & Clara Schumann and Brahms at Conway Hall - concert review
  • New dance double bill from New English Ballet Theatre & The English Concert (★★★★)  - Ballet Review
  • Pared down & claustrophobic: La Tragédie de Carmen from Pop-Up Opera  (★★★) - Opera review
  • Vividly theatrical, lyrically sung, but.... - Salome at ENO  (★★★★) - Opera review
  • A forgotten tradition: premiere recordings of two English symphonic works from John Andrews & BBC Concert Orchestra (★★★½) - CD review
  • Huw Watkins - Two concertos and a symphony (★★★½) - CD review
  •  Home

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