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Black String Musicians: Ascending the Scale

By Caldwell Titcomb

Most major practitioners of jazz have been, and continue to be, Black musicians. In the field of classical music, however, the picture changes. Few Black performers have overcome all the barriers to a notable classical-music career. Singers, especially women, constitute the only exception.

Among instrumentalists, the one Black superstar is pianist Andre Watts (b. 1946), who burst on the music scene at 16 and has since fully merited his worldwide acclaim; he has been for some years one of the four or five finest pianists in the world.

But few realize that the plight of Black players in recent decades has been worse than it was several generations ago. Several past notable violinists include Jose White (1833-1920), who was a concerto soloist with the New York Philharmonic more than once in the 1870s; Joseph Douglass (1869-1935), grandson of the legendary Frederick Douglass and the first Black violinist to tour the United States as a recitalist; and Clarence Cameron White (1880-1960), who was active as a composer in addition to his concertizing.

Only in the past few years have there been signs that things are looking better for Black string players. Part of the evidence is a handful of recent recordings.

In the world of the violin we have Sanford Allen (b. 1939), who entered the Juilliard School of Music at 10, and by 20 was accomplished enough to play as a substitute violinist in the New York Philharmonic. In 1962 he became the first full-time Black player in that orchestra. Over the years he gave occasional recitals, and in 1977 he courageously decided to give up his guaranteed income from the Philharmonic in favor of a career as a freelancer and soloist.

Allen shows what he can do on the fourth of nine disks that Columbia Records issued in its Black Composers Series, a project that the firm unfortunately seems to have discontinued. With the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, led by Black conductor Paul Freeman, Allen gives a stunning performance of the Violin Concerto (1962) by Black composer Roque Cordero (b. 1917), a native of Panama who for some years has been professor of music at Illinois State University.

The concerto combines twelve-tone serial procedures with traditional structural designs. From a sonata-form first movement, it moves through a ternary slow movement to a rondo finale. He uses a 12-tone row, both forwards and backwards, but the piece is still easier to follow by ear than most serial works. Cordero's orchestration is so skillful that even the rambunctious finale never swamps the solo violin. Like its famous Alban Berg predecessor of 1936, this work is a rare masterpiece among serial violin concertos.

Having played the violin and viola in his youth, Cordero fashioned a highly idiomatic solo part. Nevertheless the writing twists fiendishly and Allen plays equal to every demand. His intonation is absolutely secure in huge leaps, and he always maintains control of his bowing arm. He negotiates all the double stops, harmonics, left-hand pizzicati and tricky rhythms without a hitch.

The one flaw is a 72-bar cut in the recapitulation of the first movement. Though the cut was sanctioned by the composer, it would have been preferable to present the work whole, since the concerto surely will not be recorded again soon. This aside, the performance is definitive; and the disk, filled out with Cordero's Eight Miniatures for Small Orchestra, won for Allen the Koussevitzky Recording Award from an international jury. But outlets for Allen's dazzling abilities will depend on the colorblindness of concert managers and audiences.

On the other hand, no past Black musicians carved notable careers as viola soloists. Enter one Marcus Thompson (b. 1946), who holds three degrees from Juilliard and has taught music at M.I.T. since 1973.

Thompson interspersed his academic duties with appearances in chamber-music concerts and as guest soloist with numerous orchestras, following his professional New York debut in 1968. He has performed such staples of the viola repertory as Berlioz' Harold in Italy, and in 1976 was soloist in a New York performance of the Viola Concerto by the late Harvard professor Walter Piston. Two years ago he gave the premiere of a work by a Black composer from Ghana, Samuel Johnson, with an orchestra led by Black conductor Karl Hampton Porter.

Early this year, Thompson was a winner in the National Black Music Competition at the Kennedy Center in Washington. As a result he and violinist Yehudi Menuhin are scheduled to perform the Mozart double concerto with the Chicago Symphony this coming season.

Thompson recently released a disk on which he plays three works in collaboration with the M.I.T. Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Epstein. Thompson himself has provided insightful jacket notes on the music.

Side one is devoted to Paul Hindemith's Der Schwanendreher (1935), the third of his four pieces for viola and orchestra. The work is a three-movement concerto, which uses four German songs from the Renaissance for much of its thematic material, a feature that illustrates Hindemith's lifelong interest in early music.

Hindemith was also a professional viola soloist and gave the work's premiere, later recording the piece with Arthur Fiedler after he emigrated to America. The performance by Thompson and the M.I.T. forces is perfectly acceptable, but there is no reason to prefer it since the work is currently available in four other performances with professional orchestras.

The music on the other side, by two recent Swiss-born composers, Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) and Frank Martin (1890-1974), makes this disk welcome. Bloch's oeuvre contains about a dozen works of avowedly Jewish flavor, the most famous being the Schelomo rhapsody for cello and orchestra (1915). The last of the Jewish works was a set of five Pieces Hebraiques (1951), for viola and piano, three of which Bloch orchestrated the next year under the title Suite Hebraique. The Thompson disk is the only current recording with the revised scoring. Though not from Bloch's top drawer, the work still stands solid and serious; and Thompson gives it a full-throated expressiveness.

The underappreciated Martin is represented by his Sonata da Chiesa (1938) for viola d'amore and organ. The composer authorized the use of a flute instead of viola, and later scored the keyboard part for string orchestra. A Musical Heritage recording of the flute-and-organ option features Jean-Pierre Rampal and Marie-Claire Alain. But the flute cannot execute the double stops and many other subtleties possible on the viola d'amore, a little-used instrument with more strings than the normal viola. In this piece Martin fused serial and tonal procedures skillfully, and Thompson's interpretation particularly emphasizes the work's pain.

On a disk entitled "Computer Generations," Thompson performs a work expressly written for him, Synapse for Viola and Computer (1976) by Barry Vercoe (b. 1937), who established M.I.T.'s electronic music studio nine years ago. Thompson brings a needed touch of humanity to a cerebral work that, though serially organized, lacks sufficient aural unity.

Finally, the cello has been the means of livelihood for a number of Black musicians, including Leonard Jeter (1881-1970); Donald White (b. 1925), a long-time member of the Cleveland Symphony; and Earl Madison (b. 1945), who joined the Pittsburgh Symphony's cello section at 19. We shall doubtless hear more of Ronald Lipscomb, who like Marcus Thompson made a strong impression at the recent Washington competition.

For several decades the best-known Black cellist, however, has been Kermit Moore (b. 1929), an active concertizer throughout the country as well as in Europe, Africa and the Far East. His recent recording contains the New England Suite by Vally Weigl (b. 1894), widow of the composer Karl Weigl. Moore collaborates here with clarinettist Stanley Drucker and pianist Ilse Sass in a work of modest charm, consisting of "Vermont Nocturne," "Maine Interlude," "Berkshire Pastorale," and "Connecticut Country Fair" (better luck next time, Rhode Island). Moore plays almost perfectly, though the work makes no inordinate demands on its performers.

In the 1970s the cello world lost three of its supreme practitioners--two to death (Pablo Casals and Gregor Piatigorsky) and one to incapacitating multiple sclerosis (Jacqueline DuPre). At the same time two superb young artists came to the fore: Nathaniel Rosen (b. 1948), who two years ago won the Gold Medal at the international cello competition in Moscow; and Eugene Moye (b. 1951).

As a Black child of eight, Moye immediately showed an aptitude for the cello, and his subsequent training was largely financed by the Epstein Memorial Foundation. In the early seventies, the U.S. State Department chose young Moye to tour the Caribbean, South America, and Africa (he is the only Black cellist ever to perform in South Africa, where he insisted on nonsegregated audiences).

In 1977 he captured attention at home by playing the David Baker cello concerto with the New York Philharmonic. A few weeks later he gave his recital debut, which the New York Times called "the kind of performance that musicians making their debut must dream of: technically polished, interpretatively mature and consistently expressive...This was a debut that Mr. Moye could hang on his wall like a trophy."

Now everyone can hear what the shouting was about, since Columbia issued Moye's first recording last year with pianist Mary Louise Vetrano as the cellist's gifted partner. Moye offers a program of six works, and the result is utterly breathtaking.

The most substantial work on the disk is the D-major transcription of Brahms' G-major violin sonata, Op. 78, published shortly before the composer's death. Experts still dispute whether this version was written by Brahms himself, Julius Klengel, Paul Klengel, or someone else. Some people denounce the transcription; but Brahms himself loved the mellow low range, which makes this version a valuable alternative.

Schumann's three Fastasiestucke, Op. 73, were composed for clarinet, but the composer authorized performance by violin or cello. Moye imbues the work with proper impetuosity. Moye has also resurrected a pleasant three-movement Sonata in G Major by the little-known Jean-Baptiste Breval (1756-1825), who published many such pieces in the 1780s.

Lastly, Moye pays tribute to our century's greatest cellist by filling out the disk with three short works associated with Casals: the Siloti transcription of the second movement from Bach's organ Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, and Casals' own arrangement of the ever-lovely Faure song "Apres un reve," both of which demonstrate Moye's marvelous legato bowing; and the dashing encore piece Requiebros that was written for and dedicated to Casals by his one-time student Gasparo Cassado.

Moye made his Boston debut this April in Jordan Hall, playing Saint-Saens' celebrated A-minor concerto at the season's final event offered by Concerts in Black and White, where Black conductor Wendell English leads the multiracial orchestra. The concert was the best by the orchestra this year. And Moye's performance was impeccably elegant--an impression confirmed when WGBH broadcast a tape of the program the next month. Regrettably, none of the Boston newspapers reviewed the event, but a musical genius like Moye ought to be brought back soon--by someone.

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