Tuesday 8 March 2022

Black Renaissance Woman: Samantha Ege and John Paul Ekins explore music by six remarkable women from the Chicago Renaissance

Margaret Bonds, Nora Holt, Helen Hagan, Betty Jackson King, Florence Price; Samantha Ege, John Paul Ekin; Lorelt

Margaret Bonds, Nora Holt, Helen Hagan, Betty Jackson King, Florence Price; Samantha Ege, John Paul Ekin; Lorelt

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 March 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Samantha Ege returns to Chicago between the wars to shed light on the remarkable circle of women surrounding Florence Price

Having previously recorded a disc of Florence Price's music, pianist Samantha Ege returns to Price's world with Black Renaissance Woman on Lorelt with pianist John Paul Ekins. The disc presents music by five remarkable Black female composers, Margaret Bonds, Nora Holt, Helen Hagan, Betty Jackson King and Florence Price, all part of the same remarkable circle of Black women composers and musicians in Chicago.

We have a tendency to think of Florence Price in isolation, the first Black woman composer to have a symphony performed by a major American symphony orchestra, but remarkable though Price was she was part of a network of women. We are moderately familiar with the Harlem Renaissance, but such movements happened in other cities too, notably Chicago.

We begin with Margaret Bonds; Chicago-born, she studied first with her mother Estelle Bonds. Estelle was herself a remarkable figure, a church musician and member of the National Association of Negro Musicians, her home was visited by many of the leading black writers, artists, and musicians of the era; among houseguests were sopranos Abbie Mitchell, and Lillian Evanti, and composers Florence Price and Will Marion Cook, Margaret Bonds broke numerous barriers including being the first African American to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and she gave the premiere of Florence Price's Piano Concerto in One movement. 

Her Spiritual Suite is a late work, dating from 1967 and in it she combines spirituals with influences ranging from jazz and blues to classical music. The first movement, 'The Valley of the Bones' begins evocatively and a sense of the slow Blues develops into something more complex. 'The Bells' is gentle, Bluesy, and evocative with Bonds moving effortlessly between the spiritual Peter, Go Ring dem Bells and Debussy's La cathedrale englouti. In 'Troubled Waters', the spiritual Wade in the Water is combined with an inventive rhythmic texture.

With Kansas City-born Nora Holt we come across one of the tragedies of researching the music of these women, the losses of manuscripts. Only two of Holt's pieces survive, the rest were lost when a suitcase went astray in her European travels. But Holt was influential in other ways too, being the co-founder of the National Association of Negro Musicians, and the Chicago Music Association. Holt's Negro Dance is a delightful jeu d'esprit, starting akin to Scott Joplin and then thickening textures.

New Hampshire-born Helen Hagan achieved fame as a pianist but also studied composition at Yale, travelling to France and meeting Saint-Saens, Debussy, D'Indy. A piano virtuoso, her Piano Concerto was written in 1912 when she premiered it with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, but only the two piano arrangement survives and this seems to be the only one of her works survive. Hagan's Piano Concerto starts in typical Romantic and dramatic manner, before giving us richly textured and flowing piano writing. This is lush music which looks to composers such as Rachmaninov and whilst it does not quite avoid bombast, it is a remarkable work and one must hope that someone might reconstruct the orchestra version.

Betty Jackson King is a slightly later figure, growing up in Chicago in the afterglow of the Chicago Renaissance. She studied music at Roosevelt University and went on to have a varied career. Four Seasonal Sketches was written in 1955, each movement devoted to a particular season. Spring is evocative and quite classically influence, Summer is perhaps more Bluesy and dramatic and at times takes us into a highly Romantic world. Autumn is a lively and rhythmic dance, with a slightly exotic cast to the musical material whilst Winter returns us to high drama.

Florence Price's output has also suffered from losses and our knowledge of her music expanded enormously when a hitherto unknown cache of her manuscripts was discovered in her former Summer home in the early 20th century. She wrote her Piano Concerto in one movement in 1934, and as we have seen it was premiered by Margaret Bonds. Price went on to create a two-piano arrangement, a common practice at the time when recording opportunities were limited, thus enabling the music to spread further. It opens with a highly dramatic peroration in which Price cleverly mixes Romantic convention with musical material that has its origins in African American culture, and from here the music unfolds with a remarkably surefooted sense of drama. The influence of Dvorak's American period seems to hover creatively over the tender middle section, whilst the delightful finale is based around the Juba dance, a traditional African American form that Price used several times.

Samantha Ege presented a programme about these remarkable women for BBC Radio 3's Sunday Feature on 6 March 2022, available on BBC Sounds.

Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) - Spiritual Suite
Nora Holt (c1885-1974) - Negro Dance
Helen Hagan (1891-1964) - Piano Concerto in C minor
Betty Jackson King (1928-1994) - Four Seasonal Sketches
Florence Price (1887-1953) - Piano Concerto in One Movement
Samantha Ege (piano)
John Paul Ekin (piano)
Recorded PATS Studio, University of Surrey, 26 September, 29 & 30 December 2021
LORELT LNT145 1CD [63.44]

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