Monday 21 November 2022

The first woman of colour to have a work performed by the New York Philharmonic: exploring the music of Julia Perry

Julia Perry
Julia Perry
Julia Perry (1924-1979) was the first woman of colour to have a composition performed by the New York Philharmonic (in 1965, her Short Piece for Orchestra) and in fact, Perry was only the third woman to have a work performed by the orchestra. She wrote 12 symphonies, concertos for piano and for violin, a Requiem (Homage to Vivaldi), and several operas including one on the Salem Witch Trials. She studied both with Luigi Dallapiccola and Nadia Boulanger. Yet her music seems to have almost entirely disappeared. Despite a welcome exploration of music by 20th-century composers of colour, works by Julia Perry remain rare in the concert hall and on disc.

If you are lucky enough to be in New York on Friday 2 December 2022, then there is a chance to hear Julia Perry's Violin Concerto from 1963 when James Blachly conducts the Experiential Orchestra with Curtis Stewart as the soloist. Perry worked on the concerto between 1963 and 1968, but this performance will be using a new edition which incorporates revisions Perry made in 1977.

Soloist Curtis Stewart comments, "Julia Perry has occupied a mysterious space in my musical world for a while - for years, Jannina Norpoth from our ensemble PUBLIQuartet has been bringing works of hers for arrangement, but we have been grappling with the quirks of her publishing (or lack thereof) and unable to perform much of what she originally wrote. I am so excited to be able to finally play one of her original works!"

So, who was Julia Perry? Born in Kentucky in 1924, she lived with her family in Ohio and studied first at Westminster Choir College from 1943-1948 and then at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood with Luigi Dallapiccola. Thanks to a pair of Guggenheim Fellowships, Perry was able to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and then with Dallapiccola in Italy, where she also studied conducting. She only returned to the USA in 1959, having spent over five years in Europe. In 1971 she suffered the first of two strokes and taught herself to write with her left hand, so she could continue composition, and her final symphony (her 12th, Simple Symphony) was written in hospital.

Her early works were nearly all vocal, but she moved to write instrumental and orchestral works. Whilst she did include elements of African-inspired music and spirituals in her work, she was influenced by her time in Europe and much of her music is neo-classical in style, and evidently, the Violin Concerto is also highly virtuosic.

The Experiential Orchestra have a reputation for exploring interesting areas of repertoire; their performances and recording of Ethel Smyth's late masterwork The Prison [see my review] have been an important contribution to our understanding of neglected 20th-century music.

James Blachly conducts the Experiential Orchestra in music by Curtis Stewart, Julia Perry, Coleridge Taylor Perkinson with Curtis Stewart (violin) at The DiMenna Center for Classical Music 450 West 37th Street New York, NY 10018, USA on 2 December 2022 Further details

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