This is a Celebrity Series at Home digital concert. Streaming live from First Church in Cambridge on Saturday, March 5 at 8 pm and available for on demand viewing until Friday, March 11 at 7pm.
Two of today’s premier ensembles join forces in a rare collaboration between string quartet and wind quintet. This spectacular evening of music will include the Boston premiere of a new work by Jessie Montgomery, co-commissioned by Celebrity Series of Boston. Written specifically for these two internationally acclaimed groups, Montgomery’s suite follows the travels of her great-grandfather, Buffalo Soldier Sergeant McCauley, highlighting Montgomery’s deeply personal combination of classical music training and vernacular approach to storytelling.
The program as a whole will be a diverse musical exploration of the concept of migration, with brilliantly re-invigorated works including Mongo Santamaría’s ever-popular jazz standard “Afro Blue” arranged for wind quintet by Valerie Coleman; Florence B. Price’s lush and intricate Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint, written for string quartet; and modern great Roberto Sierra’s enduring and technically demanding Concierto de Cámara, written specifically for tonight’s uncommon instrumentation. From the atypical but excellent musical selections, to the presence of two world-class ensembles—both of them highly in-demand concert headliners on their own merits—to the brilliant acoustics and intimacy of the First Church in Cambridge, this chamber music event offers a lot of reasons for excitement.
Performed by Imani Winds.
Ramón “Mongo” Santamaría (1917-2003), famous as an Afro-Cuban drummer, began his musical education with violin lessons in his native Cuba but soon transitioned to percussion, and in the process, he found his true instrument. He moved to New York in 1950, where he performed with Tito Puente and Cal Tjader. Reviews have praised his performances as being a “mesmerizing spectacle for both eyes and ears, creating an incantatory spell rooted in Cuban religious rituals.”
The Imani Winds have, over the years, expanded the wind quintet repertoire with newly commissioned and arranged music, consciously reflecting their own African-American and Latino heritage.
Written in 1959, "Afro Blue" is one of the most popular jazz standards and has been widely performed by many jazz greats: Dizzie Gillespie, John Coltrane, and others. It is heard here in an arrangement by Imani Winds’ former flutist, the composer/arranger Valerie Coleman. Her arrangement simulates an African call-and-response ritual and aspires to continue the celebratory tradition that Santamaría gave the world. The melody is presented initially by one player; the others slowly join, as Coleman’s arrangement gradually moves toward an enactment of the call-and-response ritual.
© Susan Halpern, 2021
Performed by Catalyst Quartet
The early 20th-century composer Florence Price (1887-1953) is often remembered as the first African-American woman to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra. In 1933, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played her Symphony in E minor. That orchestra also premiered her Piano Concerto the following year. In the 1930s and early 1940s, music groups sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in Illinois and Michigan performed some of Price’s longer works. Price’s groundbreaking Symphony in E minor was the first prize-winner of the 1932 Rodman Wanamaker Music Contest and was premiered in 1933 by Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Price spent her professional career in Chicago, having moved north from Arkansas to Illinois with her family as part of the Great Migration in the early 20th century. She was an active participant in the great Chicago Black Renaissance between 1935 and 1950. Because of her extraordinary musical talent and her family’s affluence, she was able, notwithstanding her race and her gender, to study at the Chicago Musical College and the American Conservatory of Music, also in Chicago; further, she enrolled at the New England Conservatory in Boston, where she majored in organ and piano. After graduating with two degrees, Price worked as a college professor, church organist, and theater accompanist.
Florence Beatrice Price wrote more than 300 musical compositions. Some of her works have been lost and others are unpublished, but some of her piano and vocal music is still being heard in concert halls. Contralto Marian Anderson brought her historic 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial to its conclusion with Price’s “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.” More recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in Price's work as an important American composer whose work is worthy of programming, performing, and hearing.
During the 1930s, musicians all over the U.S. suffered from the effects of the Depression, partly because the rise of radio in the 1920s had decreased opportunities for performing musicians. The close of the silent film era, beginning in the late 1920s, quickly made musicians’ work providing live music in movie theaters obsolete. In fact, between 1929 and 1934, 70% of America’s musicians became unemployed, and it was not until the WPA began that musicians, and especially Black musicians, received some relief. Some of Price’s most important works were composed during the WPA years, a time when the African American nationalist movement in music became predominant. By 1935, the Chicago Defender called her the “Dean of Negro Composers of the Middlewest” both for her professional accomplishments and because African Americans identified with the music she composed.
Her four Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint for string quartet, composed in 1947, are often confused with her Five Folksongs in Counterpoint, also for string quartet, but completed in 1951. The confusion probably is because the group of four on today's program (“Go Down Moses,” “Somebody’s Knockin’ on Yo’ Do’,” “Little David Play on Yo’ Harp,” and “Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho”) have not yet been republished since they were rediscovered in 2009 in an abandoned house outside Chicago. (Also, Price had originally named the 1951 fivesome Five Negro Folksongs, and then she changed the title twice before settling on the title Five Folksongs in Counterpoint.)
In Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint, Price embraces her roots as a religious southern Black woman. In this work, she blends the spiritual, a vocal genre, with counterpoint, more traditionally used in the classical string quartet. The songs’ spiritual themes become transformed with the use of counterpoint, giving the music an intricate and rich texture as the four string voices intertwine.
© Susan Halpern, 2021
Jessie Montgomery (b.1981) is a contemporary American composer, violinist, and educator, whose work includes solo, chamber, vocal, and orchestral works. The Washington Post has described her work as “turbulent, wildly colorful, and exploding with life.” She herself attests: “Music is my connection to the world.”
Montgomery, who frequently performs as a violinist, began studying violin at the Third Street Music School in New York City. She grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where her father, a musician who managed a music studio, and her mother, a theater artist and storyteller, were active in the culture of the local community, which gave her formative experiences in performance, education, and advocacy. Throughout her childhood, she was surrounded by many different kinds of music, which have informed her work: African-American spirituals, civil rights anthems, and modern jazz among them. She completed her education at the Juilliard School and New York University.
For twenty years, Montgomery has been affiliated with the Sphinx Organization, which supports young African American and Latinx string players; she has served as composer-in-residence for the Albany (NY) Symphony and for the Sphinx Virtuosi and is a founding member of the PUBLIQuartet and former member of the Catalyst Quartet; she also has regularly appeared with the Silkroad Ensemble and the Sphinx Virtuosi. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra selected her as a featured composer for their Project 19, which marks the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, granting equal voting rights to women in the United States. She also received the Leonard Bernstein Award from the ASCAP Foundation and has received grants and awards from Chamber Music America, American Composers Orchestra, the Joyce Foundation, and the Sorel Organization.
Montgomery’s music combines vernacular and improvisatory styles with the classical tradition to create a powerful narrative, one for which the composer feels her family’s storytelling tradition contributed motivation. Montgomery’s mother, also a playwright, created theatre pieces inspired by her family history, “So I’ve been witness to that all of my life,” she says. “That ethos has found its way into my music.”
Sergeant McCauley was commissioned for Imani Winds and the Catalyst Quartet by Music Accord (a consortium of North American performing arts presenters of which Celebrity Series of Boston is a member) and the Sphinx Organization.
Music Accord has provided the following note, written by Patrick Castillo, about Montgomery’s work:
“Sergeant McCauley draws from Montgomery’s personal history. [Written especially] for wind quintet and string quartet, the work is inspired by the Great Migration, the movement of more than six million African Americans over the early- and mid-20th century from the rural south to urban centers across the United States. The work specifically tracks the journey of Montgomery’s great-grandfather, the Sergeant McCauley after whom the work is titled: a Buffalo Soldier (originally defined as an African American soldier serving in the western U.S. after the Civil War) who migrated northward before ultimately returning south to Mississippi. Montgomery’s reconstruction of his journey is based as much on research (military records documenting his travels, etc.) as it is on family lore, nurtured in conversation with her mother and aunt.
“Like a sound map of Sergeant McCauley’s travels, Montgomery’s score makes use of African American spirituals and work songs that would have been heard in the locales he likely passed. The work's five movements [point] to these songs, each representing a stop along the way.
“Sergeant McCauley tracks the journey of composer and performer Jessie Montgomery’s great-grandfather during the Great Migration. It strings together spirituals and work songs that reflect Sergeant McCauley’s route from Mississippi to the West, then up north, and eventually back to Georgia. The special textures of this mix of strings and winds transforms the stories and their reflections into music.
“The first movement is based on “Just now,” a Methodist hymn thought to have originated in the northern seaboard slave states (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina), which McCauley, a Virginian Methodist, may have known from his youth. The flute dreamily issues the tune over a quiet, whispered texture in the strings, before the full ensemble gradually joins in.
“The second movement, “Makina,” depicts McCauley’s time in the military, working on the construction of the country’s young railroad system and the building of the Panama Canal. Unpitched air noises and key clicks in the wind instruments and percussive effects on the strings conjure a bustling construction scene.
“Following a reprise of the opening hymn tune, the fourth movement features “My father, how long?” a slave song whose words—“My father, how long, poor sinner suffer here? And it won’t be long, poor sinner suffer here”—at once express a yearning for spiritual salvation and for freedom from the oppression of slavery.
“The work’s final movement, “Lay dis body down,” cites a funeral song said to originate from the region surrounding South Carolina and represents Sergeant McCauley’s final resting place. Montgomery sets the song as a slow, meditative procession.”
© Susan Halpern, 2021
Roberto Sierra (b.1953) is one of the most renowned contemporary Latin American composers. He has an eclectic style in which he joins 20th-century compositional methods with folk elements of Puerto Rican and Latin origins with those of jazz. He studied at the Puerto Rico Conservatory and the University of Puerto Rico as well as at the Royal College of Music in London and London University. He also studied composition in Hamburg, Germany, where one of his most influential teachers was György Ligeti at the Hochschule.
Among his many honors, in 2003, Sierra was awarded the Academy Award in Music by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The award states: “Roberto Sierra writes brilliant music, mixing fresh and personal melodic lines with sparkling harmonies and striking rhythms. . .” In 2010, he was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and, in 2017, he was awarded the Tomás Luis de Victoria Prize, the highest honor given in Spain to a composer of Spanish or Latin American origin. In 2021, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
For more than 30 years, the works of this Grammy-nominated and Latin Grammy-winning composer have been part of the repertoire of many of the leading orchestras, ensembles, and festivals in the US and Europe. Sierra has served as composer-in-residence with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, and the New Mexico Symphony.
In 2008, as a celebration of its 10th anniversary, Imani Winds began its Legacy Commissioning Project with the intent of commissioning composers of color to create for the quintet works that would expand the language of contemporary classical music while representing various cultures through nontraditional voices. Imani Winds has premiered and toured the new works, including this one by Sierra and others by Stefon Harris, Simon Shaheen, Paquito D’Rivera, Wayne Shorter, and Mohammed Fairouz.
Concierto de Cámara, a nonet for wind quintet and string quartet, was jointly commissioned by Imani Winds with Stanford Lively Arts, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and Chamber Music Northwest. At its 2008 premiere in Portland (OR), Concierto de Cámara was enthusiastically received.
Throughout the spirited three-movement work, the string quartet and the wind quintet have a lively competition, beginning in the Overtura and slow Primer interludio (“First interlude”). They have fun in Juegos (“Games”) and the expressive and more moderately paced Segundo interludio (“Second interlude”). The work culminates in the final Danza, characterized by its salsa rhythms. Critic David Stabler wrote, “Sierra’s exuberant nonet fairly danced off the stage ... preserving the integrity of each ensemble while demanding intricate interplay among the individual players. The cross-court volleys amid the rushing scales were exhilarating to behold.” Throughout, Sierra highlights the distinctive sounds of each of the instruments as well as the qualities of the string quartet and the wind quintet and their combined qualities as a group of nine.
© Susan Halpern, 2021
“…it’s easy to understand why the longtime quintet is such a draw… with their dazzling ensemble playing and easy engagement with the audience, the whole is vastly more than the sum of its parts. Two hours of new and unfamiliar music flew by.”THE WASHINGTON POST ON IMANI WINDS
“Like all great chamber groups, the Catalyst Quartet is beautiful to watch, like a family in lively conversation at the dinner table: anticipating, interrupting, changing subjects.”THE NEW YORK TIMES