Three composers with uncomfortable ties to Russia and the Soviet Union came together Friday in the last guest-conducted concert of the Charlotte Symphony’s classical season.
Vladivostok-born Victoria Borisova-Ollas moved away from her homeland as a teenager in the 1980s and has spent the bulk of her life in Sweden. Dmitri Shostakovich faced condemnation and censorship through much of his career in the USSR. And Jean Sibelius spent the first 50 years of his life under Russian sway: The armies of Tsar Alexander I took control of Finland in 1809, making it an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire until World War I.
No wonder, then, that the current invasion of Ukraine hung over the concert. Even soloist Calin Ovidiu Lupanu, who played Shostakovich’s long-suppressed Violin Concerto No. 1, prefaced his encore with the simple phrase “For peace.” He then gave us the sarabande from Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin, soul-soothing music at its deepest.
Karen Kamensek, presumably the sixth music director candidate to come through this season, seemed most connected to Borisova-Ollas’ “Angelus.” The two women have known each other for years, and this U.S. premiere of the 2008 tone poem brought out all the beauty and diversity in its 22 minutes.
Kamensek told us the composer had walked around Munich, absorbing the sounds of that metropolis, and you could hear those elements in the steady pulse of her piece: church bells, birdsong, traffic, hurried conversations among scurrying people, perhaps even the rain and thunder of a quick storm. Though the music never varied much in tempo, changes in dynamics and mood kept it interesting.
Shostakovich’s concerto caught fire intermittently, usually when Lupanu played. It lasts about 36 minutes, longer than any mainstream violin concerto except Beethoven’s and Brahms’, and it needs the most incisive playing to make it come to life. Lupanu provided that, especially in the ferocious passages of the scherzo and the savage humor of the final burlesque.
The orchestra seldom did, except in a few waves of passion during the wilder sections. Most of the time it jogged along correctly, in a manner nearly free of tension and despair. Lupanu’s few minutes of Bach contained more heart than most of the orchestral passages of the concerto put together.
Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, a self-described “confession of the soul” that put him on the world’s musical map in 1902, got somewhat more energetic treatment after the intermission. Yet even here, we heard a rendition where all the notes were in place without special insight.
Kamensek carefully observed dynamic markings, took reasonable tempos and occasionally gave us flashes of high drama. But the dark mystery, the sense of danger, the sudden rush of joy at the glorious start of the fourth movement – these were not to be found, and chills never ran up the spine.
P.S. Anyone still describing Charlotte with the embarrassing adjective “world-class” might consider this: Kamensek assuaged anxieties about “Angelus” by saying, “Don’t be afraid because it’s modern. It’s very cinematic.” No concertgoers in any world-class city on Earth would need to hear that before a premiere.
The concert repeats tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Knight Theater. You can get details here.
After a year of virtual concerts, WDAV and FAIR PLAY Music Equity Initiative’s NoteWorthy concert series is finally making its in-person debut! You’ll hear music from four visionary artists featured in NoteWorthy’s first season – Quisol, Karen Poole, and Harvey Cummings II – onstage with Charlotte icon DJ Fannie Mae and some of the region’s top classical musicians.
We think that’s all the convincing you should need to get in the car and head to Charlotte – but if you’re still weighing your options, we’ve got you covered with five great reasons to make the trip.
1. Charlotte’s music scene will come together in front of your eyes.
When NoteWorthy was just an idea back in early 2021, WDAV and FAIR PLAY formed a shared vision for the project: “to build one Charlotte music community that values all voices.” To honor that vision, we knew that every NoteWorthy pairing needed space to meld together organically, sharing ideas with one another to create something entirely new. That meant that although the first group of artists was strong, those of us behind the scenes still weren’t sure what we were going to hear when it came time to film NoteWorthy’s first episodes.
At the shoot, any nerves we felt were immediately replaced with sheer joy. The energy in the room was electric. The music went beyond our highest hopes for what the project could be. And best of all, the artists’ pride in what they had created together was contagious. Just like that first shoot day, performing in-person at SHOUT! marks a new chapter for NoteWorthy – and this time, you have a chance to be there for the start of it all.
2. It’s FREE.
No tickets. No reservations. Just unforgettable collaborations, out in the open for the whole community to experience together. Come as you are and enjoy the music!
3. NoteWorthy artists never stop making moves.
One of the things we love about NoteWorthy is that every audience member gets a chance to discover something, whether it’s a budding interest in classical music or a new favorite Charlotte artist (or five). The best part? Keeping up with the musicians onstage at NoteWorthy is a gift that keeps on giving. Case in point, here’s what some of our featured artists have been up to in just the last month:
Limited edition CDs for Quisol’s new album Dreamworld came out (in addition to its streaming release on Bandcamp), featuring NoteWorthy classical musicians Kari Giles and Jeremy Lamb.
4. FAIR PLAY Music Equity Initiative is making a difference in Charlotte’s music scene.
NoteWorthy is a collaborative project between WDAV and FAIR PLAY Music Equity Initiative, a Charlotteorganization that envisions “a fair Charlotte music scene where what makes us different is what makes the difference.” Through projects like NoteWorthy, Open Mic Nights, and Charlotte Community Music Hangs, FAIR PLAY works toward inclusivity in music programming and equitable platforms for all Charlotte artists every day. Meet the FAIR PLAY team and learn more about the initiative at their website.
5. The Charlotte SHOUT! festival fun doesn’t end with NoteWorthy.
Art, music, food, and ideas are the pillars of Charlotte SHOUT!, a multi-week celebration of Charlotte’s creativity – and with hundreds of activities planned, you won’t have trouble checking off all four of those boxes! Before you head over to Victoria Yards on Wednesday night, spend the day learning to screen print textiles with MacFly Fresh Printing Co., browsing SHOUT!’s ArtPop Street Gallery, playing mini golf at Wells Fargo Plaza, or exploring the festival’s numerous outdoor art installations. If you’re hungry after all that excitement, grab a bite to eat at one of three mouthwatering food trucks standing by at the NoteWorthy concert: Abbott’s Frozen Custard of Tega Cay, Sandwhich Express, and Sandra Lee’s Country Kitchen.
The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra hasn’t specified which of the guest conductors this season and next will be considered for the music directorship in 2023-24. Joshua Gersen took the podium this weekend as a late replacement for Kwame Ryan, who’ll appear next season, so I have no idea whether Gersen even wants the job. But on the evidence of Friday’s concert at Knight Theater, he belongs in the front rank of contenders.
Gersen and violinist Jinjoo Cho teamed for an introspective, insightful and finally incendiary reading of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. Gersen also led the CSO through an unfamiliar piece, Errollyn Wallen’s “Mighty River,” and one where long familiarity can lead to boredom in an indifferent performance: Robert Schumann’s Third Symphony, the “Rhenish.” He guided us wisely through the former and blew the dust off the latter with a buoyant reading.
Gersen, who recently concluded a gig as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, introduced the evening by suggesting we think of the pieces as linked by songfulness. “River,” a 2007 piece commemorating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Britain, uses the British hymn “Amazing Grace” as the groundwork for variations. Barber and Schumann each wrote a tremendous amount of vocal music and made some of their orchestral pieces songful, too.
He might also have said the three were connected by rivers. Wallen grew up and studied by the Thames in London and the Hudson in New York City. Barber studied and taught in Philadelphia, along the Delaware, then lived with fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti off the Hudson above New York. Schumann finished his symphony in Dusseldorf, along the Rhine. All three of these works flow with unceasing energy, and Gersen had his fingers on the pulse of each.
Wallen’s curtain-raiser suggested Bedrich Smetana’s “Moldau” at times, not melodically but in the swirls and eddies of music that steadily built in intensity. She used snatches of the American spirituals “Deep River” and (if I heard right) “Going Home,” as the piece buzzed and thrust forward to a strong conclusion.
Gersen showed us at once how he thought the Schumann should go. The taut, bracing opening movement and breezy scherzo reminded me of George Szell’s landmark recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, my favorite. Gersen relaxed in the gracious third movement, gave us a warm but never ponderous fourth – it’s marked “feierlich,” or “solemnly” – and then swept us through the finale, wiping out memories of the watery horns that marred earlier sections.
Yet the Barber concerto remained the high point of the concert. Joy lit Gersen’s face as he gently suppressed the orchestra in Barber’s quieter solo passages and unleashed it for thunderous climaxes. He also beamed at Cho, who sometimes bounced in smiling approval when she wasn’t playing.
Cho took her earliest solos with a small, sweet, silvery sound, ruminative but unsentimental. Her passion mounted as Barber’s did, and she produced the most captivatingly intense rendering of the beautiful slow movement I can recall. (“She’s a human singing violin,” said my wife, aptly.) The pyrotechnics of the fiddle-busting final movement lifted her, Gersen, the orchestra and the audience to the highest level of delighted delirium.
As part of WDAV’s 2022 Women’s History Month celebrations, we’re highlighting 22 young women in classical music and their incredible achievements before the age of 22. Featuring instrumentalists, opera singers, conductors, composers, and beyond, this list represents just a fraction of the crucial contributions women and girls have made to classical music since its earliest stages of development. Happy Women’s History Month!
1. Jennifer Pike (1989 – )
At just 12 years old, violinist Jennifer Pike became the youngest-ever winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year, followed by debuts at the BBC Proms and Wigmore Hall at 15. The following year, Pike was awarded a scholarship to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama on a specially-created postgraduate course, never before undertaken by someone of her age.She graduated with First Class Honors in Music from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford in 2012, where she is now the Artist-In-Residence.
2. Isata Kanneh-Mason (1996 – )
Before turning 22, pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason had won The Royal Academy Iris Dyer Piano Prize four times and received the 2016 Mrs. Claude Beddington Prize for outstanding recital results at the Royal Academy of Music, among numerous other awards. Last year, she became the 2021 Best Classical Artist recipient at the Global Awards along with her siblings.
3. Lili Boulanger (1893 – 1918)
At 19 years old, Lili Boulanger became the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome composition prize for her cantata Faust et Hélène.
4. Patrice Munsel (1925 – 2016)
At 17 years old, Patrice Munsel became the youngest star ever to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in 1943. She would go on to sing at the Metropolitan Opera 225 times over the course of her career.
5. Laura van der Heijden (1997 – )
Cellist Laura van der Heijden won the BBC Young Musician competition at just 15 years old. Since graduating from Cambridge University in 2019, she has performed with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Tchaikovsky Symphony, the Prague Symphony, the London Philharmonic and BBC Philharmonic Orchestras, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
6. Grace Moore (2008 – )
Grace Moore has already begun to make a name for herself as a composer at just 14 years old. The New York Symphony-Philharmonic performed her piece “Summer” in 2020.
7. Clara Schumann (1819 – 1896)
Clara Schumann, who would go on to become an esteemed composer and one of Europe’s leading piano virtuosi, was a child prodigy who gave her solo debut in the Leipzig Gewandhaus at the age of 11.
8. Martha Argerich (1941 – )
In 1957, legendary pianist Martha Argerich won both the Geneva International Music Competition and the Ferruccio Busoni International Competition within three weeks of each other at age 16.
9. Sarah Chang (1980 – )
Violinist Sarah Chang first played as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1989, when she was 9 years old. At 19, Chang became one the first women and the youngest recipient ever of the Avery Fisher Prize.
10. Jess Gilham (1998 – )
After making history as the first saxophonist to win the BBC Young Musician Woodwind Final, Jess Gilham made her BBC Proms debut at 18 in 2017. Gilham has now released a pair of albums: “RISE” (2019) and “TIME” (2020).
11. Alma Deutscher (2005 – )
Born in 2005, Alma Deutscher composed her first piano sonata at 6 years old, then completed a concerto for violin and orchestra at 9. These were followed by a piano concerto and a full length opera, Cinderella. Commissioned by the Salzburg State Theatre, her second opera will premiere next year.
12. Florence Price (1887 – 1953)
Florence Price, the first Black woman to gain recognition on a national level as a composer, grew up as a piano prodigy, playing in her first piano recital at age 4 and having her first composition published at 11.
13. Francesca Caccini (1587 – 1645)
Composer Francesca Caccini made her debut as a singer at King Henry IV and Maria de Medici’s wedding at age 13. Her first opera, La Stiava, premiered at the Florentine Carnival when she was 20 years old.
14. Alice Mary Smith (1839 – 1884)
Known as the first British woman to compose a symphony, Alice Mary Smith’s first song was published when she was just 18. She completed her symphony at age 24 in 1863.
15. Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665 – 1729)
Accepted into King Louis XIV’s court as a teenager (around 15 years old), Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre performed as a singer and harpsichordist and later became France’s first female opera composer.
16. Alondra de la Parra (1980 – )
In her early 20’s, conductor Alondra de la Parra founded the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas (POA). Starting at age 22, de la Parra has developed several music education programs in New York City public schools. Later in her career, she became the first ever female music director of an Australian orchestra.
Maria Ewing made her professional debut as an opera singer at the age of 20. Three years later, she received high praise for her Ravinia Festival debut from a Chicago Tribune reviewer: “I cannot remember a young singer who has excited me more on a first hearing… Still in her early twenties, she has the clear stamp of greatness in every movement and tone.”
18. Rebecca Young (1966 – )
In 1986, violist Rebecca Young became the youngest member of the New York Philharmonic at 20 years old. She received an offer to join when she was still attending Juilliard as an undergraduate student.
19. Alexandra Whittingham (1997 – )
As a teenager, classical guitarist Alexandra Whittingham was already a rising star in the music scene, winning the inaugural Edinburgh Guitar Competition at just 16. At 22, she was awarded first class honors at the Royal Academy of Music and the 2019 Timothy Gilson Guitar Prize.
20. Carol Jantsch (1985 – )
In 2006, Carol Jantsch became the youngest member of the Philadelphia Orchestra at 21 years old. In the same year, she became the first woman to hold a principal tuba chair in one of the nation’s top orchestras.
21. Maddalena Casulana (1544 – 1590)
Maddalena Casulana published her first collection of madrigals, “Il Desiderio,” at the age of 22. She was an Italian composer and the first female composer to have an entire book of her work printed in Western musical history.
22. Shulamit Ran (1949 – )
Composer Shulamit Ran began setting Hebrew poetry to music around age 7, and began studying composition with top Israeli composers, including Alexander Boskovich and Paul Ben-Haim, by 9 years old.
The Charlotte Symphony announced Monday the details of their 2022-23 season. The Classical Series will feature eleven guest conductors who will lead works by John Adams, Beethoven, Brahms, Copland, Anna Clyne, Grieg, William Grant Still, among others. Additionally, Conductor Laureate and Music Adviser Christopher Warren-Green returns to conduct Handel’s Messiah.
The Charlotte Symphony’s 2022–23 Classical Series opens with a program featuring Elgar’s Cello Concerto, performed by Israeli cellist Inbal Segev, conducted by Andrew Grams. The program, which takes place October 7–8, 2022, will also include R. Strauss’s Aus Italien and PIVOT, a new work by GRAMMY-nominated composer Anna Clyne.
“The 2022–23 season is truly emblematic of what the Charlotte Symphony does best,” said President and CEO David Fisk. “The Orchestra will welcome a variety of guest conductors and artists with perspectives from around the world, offering a taste of the Symphony’s incredible range and versatility and laying the groundwork for an even more vibrant future. We’ll also continue to strengthen the cultural fabric of our community through inspiring performances, our commitment to accessible music education, and meaningful collaborations with partners throughout the city. With such a wide range of offerings, the Charlotte Symphony truly has something for everyone.”
Highlights for the season include the return of conductor Jessica Cottis, leading the Orchestra and Charlotte Master Chorale in Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise), and a performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto featuring Concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu as soloist, conducted by Mei-Ann Chen. The Charlotte Symphony closes its season with Kazem Abdullah conducting Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D Major, Prague; Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, featuring Alexi Kenney as soloist; and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 in G major.
A good conductor can remind us why we fell in love with a piece of classical music. But a very good conductor can make us fall in love with a piece that has always left us cold. That happened Friday night, when Paolo Bortolameolli led an overwhelming performance of John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 that finally convinced me of its merit.
He did so first with words, breaking down this complicated work in the longest spoken introduction I remember hearing from the Belk Theater stage. (This is not a complaint; quite the opposite.) Then he did it by leading the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra through 45 minutes of emotional mood swings that left him, them and us wrung out.
If you know Corigliano, who turned 84 last week, you probably recall his rhapsodic, Oscar-winning score for “The Red Violin.” His 1991 symphony, whose first movement bears the subtitle “Of Rage and Remembrance,” comes from a different place. He responded to friends’ deaths from AIDS in music that churns with distress, plunges into grief, seeks solace and seems briefly to find it, erupts again in pain and finally subsides into an exhausted meditation.
Envision 17 brass players lined up against the back of the stage, like a firing squad shooting bullets of angst and anger. Or string players strumming their instruments like maddened mandolinists during a demented tarantella. Or cellist Alan Black keening through a solo lament that’s picked up by his fellow musicians as it builds to a volcanic outburst, then ebbs away.
To see this live, as you can do tonight, creates an impression that even the Grammy-winning recording by Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony could not do. It’s the difference between watching a championship fight on TV and sitting ringside, where every punch seems to land in your solar plexus.
Lest you be put off by such intensity, know that the first half of the evening provides more melodic and easily digestible pieces. Bortolameolli began with an appealing tone poem by his friend, Gabriela Ortiz. (Two living composers on one CSO program? A rarity indeed.)
“Téenek — Invenciones de Territorio” got its world premiere five years ago and has the kind of propulsive, swinging rhythms I associate with other Mexican composers, such as Carlos Chávez or Silvestre Revueltas. Ortiz alternates between disciplined ferocity and mysticism, but the music hardly ever stops percolating.
Christine Lamprea took center stage for Dmitri Kabalevsky’s Cello Concerto No. 1, the shorter and more accessible of his two concertos for that instrument. It offers snatches of folk songs throughout, and the composer spoke of it as a memorial to young soldiers killed in World War II. Yet Bortolameolli asked us to think of it in coded terms, like the works of Shostakovich when he had to placate Stalin. (I’m not wholly convinced: Unlike Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Kabalevsky seemed comfortable with the mind-dulling tenets of “socialist realism” in art.)
Bortolameolli and Lamprea made a case that the merriment is meant to be hollow, the melancholy sections slightly ironic, the humor more sardonic than bemused. Her lustrous and fervent playing made the whole thing memorable, rather than merely attractive.
I left wondering what Bortolameolli might do with traditional repertoire of the 19th century. Any guest conductor may be assumed to be auditioning for the music director’s job that Christopher Warren-Green will leave this summer. Whoever replaces him will have to serve up Tchaikovsky and Brahms, if perhaps in smaller doses than Charlotte has traditionally heard. Can Bortolameolli bring Rachmaninov to life, as he did Corigliano? —
I have long believed the way a conductor approaches Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony depends on whether he thought the composer killed himself.
Was Tchaikovsky a tortured, unstable neurotic who took his own life – either by choice or under pressure from court officials — because his homosexuality created a scandal? Or was he a man who, having sketched out a third piano concerto and discussed a concert tour, simply caught cholera and died?
Kensho Watanabe’s interpretation put him firmly in the first camp Friday night at Belk Theater. His performance drove every emotion in the piece to its outer limits, whipping the orchestra into frenzies and dropping it into funereal reveries. Most of the audience rewarded him with a roar of approval. Mine will be a dissenting voice.
Watanabe and pianist Sara Davis Buechner gave sympathetic renditions of two unusual pieces before intermission: Anna Clyne’s “Within Her Arms,” a tribute to the composer’s late mother, and Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, with a middle movement that hushes the orchestra and lets the soloist shine in a mini-sonata with a cellist. (Alan Black played his smaller part feelingly.)
Clyne’s work for 15 strings initially seems a cousin to Samuel Barber’s orchestration of his Adagio: Both use only strings, have layered fragments of melody and project the quality of a lament. (Barber’s adaptation of the slow movement from his string quartet didn’t start that way but has acquired this meaning over time.)
Yet Clyne’s sparse use of the strings and refusal to resolve the wispy, touching fragments of sound into a climax make her closer kin to Morton Feldman, though with more directly communicated feelings.
Schumann wrote her concerto as a teenager, assisted to some degree by her future husband. (Robert set his piano concerto, written a decade later, in the same key.) Yet her music owes more to Liszt in its moments of high drama and hints of gypsy wildness in the finale, and it owes nothing to anyone in its tender passages.
Buechner moved fluidly from bravura sections to gentler ones, reminding us in the long solo of the intermediate romanze that Clara Schumann wrote beautiful songs. Watanabe conducted with such joie de vivre that Buechner rocked with joy on the piano bench when not playing.
Watanabe told us with the agonizingly slow opening moments of the Tchaikovsky where he intended to take us. We immediately entered a gloomy dream, and he snapped us out with a thunderclap to start the first movement allegro. From there, each movement took on the hint of madness that plagues a hypersensitive brain.
The modified waltz of the second movement, now restless and bouncing, lost all elegance and warmth. The third movement march, bustling so feverishly that it recalled the scurrying mouse music in “Nutcracker,” built to a nightmarish frenzy. (Kudos to the orchestra for playing it well at that speed.)
Tchaikovsky the manic-depressive showed up in the finale, which alternated between the now-familiar melancholia (punctuated by long pauses) and bursts of nervous energy that slowly petered out to nothingness, as if the exhausted composer had finally collapsed.
Perhaps your interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s last finished symphony (he left sketches for another) also depends on your understanding of the title. After rejecting the name “Program Symphony,” because he didn’t want listeners guessing what the program was supposed to be, Tchaikovsky chose a Russian title meaning “passionate.”
His brother Modest suggested the French “Pathétique,” usually translated as “pathetic.” That stuck, perhaps over the composer’s objections, when he died nine days after the premiere and the publisher printed it on the score. If you’re looking for the pathetic Tchaikovsky, you’ll find him when the concert repeats tonight.
Pictured: Kensho Watanabe, conductor; by Irina Belashov.
Each week throughout the month of February, WDAV’s First and The Future blog series highlights two Black composers or musicians who have shaped the course of classical music: one who shattered a historical barrier, and one whose extraordinary achievements in the same field continue today. Check back here every Monday for the next pair of classical artists!
The first fully American-trained musician to appear with a European orchestra; the first Black woman to perform as a soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic
Born in 1883, pianist Hazel Harrison’s proficiency at just 8 years old allowed her to earn extra money accompanying local parties and dances. While attending one such event, German pianist Victor Heinze noticed Harrison’s remarkable gifts and asked to take her on as a student. She would continue to study with Heinze throughout her early years, even commuting to Chicago regularly from LaPorte, Indiana to maintain her studies after he moved. Harrison developed a steady career as a private instructor and performer in her late teens, but it wasn’t until two years after her high school graduation that her big break arrived.
In 1904, Harrison was invited to travel to Germany to play with the Berlin Philharmonic. The concert, at which she played Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E Minor and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, was both a critical success and the marker of two historical firsts: Harrison became the first entirely American-trained musician to perform with a European orchestra and the first Black woman to perform as a soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic. Her 1910 performance at Chicago’s Kimball Hall was an even greater success, inspiring one music critic to advocate for the local music community to sponsor Harrison’s return to Germany for continued training.
Faced with the challenges of World War I and the Great Depression, opportunities to perform grew scarce for Harrison after her time in Europe, though she did continue to play concerts and recitals periodically. Harrison spent six years teaching at the Tuskegee Institute, once giving a student this advice:
“You must always play your best… even if it’s in the waiting room at Chehaw Station, because in this country there’ll always be a little man hidden behind the stove.”
Harrison later became chair of the piano faculty at Howard University, where she established the Olive J. Harrison Piano Scholarship Fund in honor of her mother. She passed away at the age of 86 in 1969. For more information on Hazel Harrison’s life and accomplishments, read a full bio here.
At 25 years old, Isata Kanneh-Mason is quickly gaining traction as one of today’s most extraordinary young pianists. Though neither of her parents are musicians, Kanneh-Mason was raised in a deeply musical family: she is the oldest of seven siblings, all of whom excel in classical music, and the family often comes together for collaborative videos and recordings. In 2015, Kanneh-Mason and six of her siblings made it to the semi-finals on Britain’s Got Talent, where Simon Cowell commented that the Kanneh-Masons were “probably the most talented family in the world.”
Family accomplishments aside, Kanneh-Mason has more than earned distinction as a soloist in recent years. After receiving her Master of Arts in Performance degree in 2020 from London’s Royal Academy of Music, where she studied as an Elton John Scholar, her concert career has reached new heights with engagements across the globe. Kanneh-Mason’s accomplishments in just the past three years include being named one of the European Concert Hall Organization’s Rising Stars, making her Wigmore Hall solo recital debut, serving as Young Artist in Residence with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and making her debut as a television presenter at 2019 BBC Proms.
Gramophone magazine lauded Kanneh-Mason’s 2019 debut album, “Romance – the Piano Music of Clara Schumann,” as “one of the most charming and engaging debuts.” Her second album, “Summertime,” was released in July 2021. Last November, Kanneh-Mason and her brother Sheku spoke with NPR about the importance of representation in classical music:
“We always feel so happy when there are more young people, and more Black people in our audiences… when they say they started playing because of seeing us, I think it’s just a wonderful thing. And it definitely keeps you wanting to do it, and it keeps you inspired.”
Kanneh-Mason’s recent accolades include the 2021 Leonard Bernstein Award, a 2020 Opus Klassik Best Young Artist award, and the 2021 Best Classical Artist award at the Global Awards (won jointly with her siblings). To read more about Isata Kanneh-Mason, visit her official website here.
One of the earliest American guitar virtuosos; considered the United States’ first Black classical guitarist and Cleveland’s first Black professional musician
Classical guitarist and civil rights activist Justin Holland is remembered as one of the United States’ most important early classical music figures. Born in Virginia in 1819, Holland moved to Boston at 14 after the death of his parents and Nat Turner’s Insurrection, and there he discovered a knack for the guitar. He would go on to study with guitar masters at Oberlin College followed by two years in Mexico, where he honed his Spanish language skills to better understand classical guitar pedagogy “at its source.”
Holland returned to Ohio in 1845 and settled in Cleveland, quickly establishing himself as a well respected, no-nonsense guitar instructor; in his own words, he maintained “the most cautious and circumspect demeanor, considering the relation a mere business one that gave me no claims upon my pupils’ attention or hospitality beyond what any ordinary business matter would give.” In addition to his musical pursuits, Holland was known to work with Frederick Douglass as a member of the Underground Railroad and campaigned tirelessly for abolition and civil rights throughout his life.
Now considered Cleveland’s first Black professional musician, his reputation as a composer, performer, and teacher blossomed into fame. Holland played the guitar, piano, and flute professionally, and his many published works achieved national popularity (though he is credited with 35 original compositions and 300 arrangements, roughly ⅔ of those have been lost). His instructional texts, including his Comprehensive Method for the Guitar (1874), were some of the earliest of their kind in the United States and remain hugely influential in classical guitar instruction today.
For more information about Justin Holland, find a full bio and media sources on his life in the links below.
“I’ve no exact memories of why I chose the guitar, but it was this instrument or nothing! … First, I had an electric guitar toy and then a classical one. I would play it all the time, so my parents understood that it was not just some childish desire, but something I really wanted and probably needed.”
Feuillâtre started guitar lessons at the Cholet Conservatory at age nine, soon moving up to the Conservatory of Nantes and the Paris National Superior Conservatory of Music and Dance, where he earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Classical Guitar with highest honors. Now just 26 years old, his achievements – though remarkable – have only just begun. In addition to his landmark GFA competition win, he is the recipient of several major awards, including first prize at both the International Guitar Competition José Tomás and the Concours & Festival de Guitare. WQXR named his album “Guitar Recital: Raphaël Feuillâtre” one of the best classical recordings of 2019, praising his “virtuoso technique and elegant phrasing.”
First Black woman to hold a tenured full professorship at Harvard University; publisher of the first musicological journal on the study of Black music
It’s difficult to overstate the impact of Dr. Eileen Southern’s work on the scholarship of Black music. Born in Minneapolis in 1920, Southern studied piano throughout her early years, making her debut at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall at the age of 18. During the 1940’s, Southern completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Chicago, embarked on a decades-long teaching career, and toured the United States as a concert pianist.
Having received her Ph.D. at New York University, Southern became a music faculty member at Brooklyn College in the 1960’s. There, she was asked to develop a course incorporating Black Studies into the musicology field. Southern was infuriated when a colleague claimed there was “nothing to Black music” in a meeting about the course’s potential and sought out works that would prove his remarks were baseless. However, only three books on the subject had been published at the time, and none were widely available – so Southern got to work, scouring libraries and collections for original materials. The painstaking research she devoted to the effort was so comprehensive that it became the basis for her book The Music of Black Americans, still considered a landmark work in music studies today.
Southern and her husband Joseph made history with the founding of The Black Perspective in Music, the first musicological journal on the study of Black music, in 1973. The journal’s mission was clearly defined in its first editorial:
“[The Black Perspective in Music] seeks to improve the conditions for the performance, publication, and recording of an important area of American and African music that hitherto has not received its due share of attention.”
The following year, Southern joined the faculty of Harvard University, soon becoming the first Black woman to hold a tenured professorship at the institution. Southern’s time at Harvard was filled with remarkable successes in spite of racist and sexist treatment from fellow faculty members, including her instrumental role in the development of Harvard’s Afro-American Studies Department and service as its first chair. Among other accolades, Southern was the recipient of a 2001 National Humanities Medal for her work to “transform the study and understanding of American music” and a 2000 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for American Music. More information about Southern’s life, work, and influence can be found through Harvard’s Eileen Southern Initiative.
Dr. Samantha Ege
A “leading interpreter and scholar” of composer Florence Price (and 2019 Society for American Music Eileen Southern Fellowship recipient), Dr. Samantha Ege is making incredible strides as a champion of composers from underrepresented backgrounds. Ege, who began playing the piano at the age of three, was astonished to hear the music of Margaret Bonds and Florence Price for the first time during one of her undergraduate classes. “It had been inculcated in me to see classical music through a narrow lens that rendered the contributions of Black women entirely absent,” Ege explained in an op-ed for The Guardian. “My music education proceeded from there and left me looking into a world in which I felt I could never truly belong.” Galvanized by the discovery of influential Black women in classical music, Ege’s lifelong passion for lesser-known works took root.
In 2009, a scenario straight out of a musicologist’s wildest dreams unfolded: though much of Florence Price’s work was believed to be lost, a trove of her written scores and papers was discovered in an abandoned house set to be renovated. For the past several years, Ege has combed through the archives, working to catalog and preserve the pages’ priceless content. Ege was particularly interested in Price’s Fantasie Nègre No 3 in F Minor, a presumed-unfinished work that “ended after two pages really abruptly.”
Using Price’s other compositions as a blueprint, Ege’s hypotheses on “where the music could go” led her to uncover what she believed to be the work’s remaining pages, which had been sitting untouched for decades. As she played through the music that evening, Ege realized that the pieces fit perfectly into place. She described to BBC Music that it felt like “history was coming to life… I sort of had chills thinking about the fact that I am hearing this music for the first time in this century.” Ege recorded the complete work for the first time as part of her 2021 album “Fantasie Nègre – The Piano Music of Florence Price,” which includes numerous other finds from the archive. Currently the Lord Crewe Junior Research Fellow in Music at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, Ege has received the American Musicological Society’s 2021 Noah Greenberg Award and will publish her first book, South Side Impresarios: Race Women in the Realm of Music, in 2024. Ege’s third studio album, “Black Renaissance Woman,” will be released later this year. To learn more about Dr. Samantha Ege’s achievements and current projects, visit her official website here.
After being introduced to the violin at the age of 8, conductor, violinist, and scholar Everett Lee’s musical gifts took flight quickly. He continued his studies in violin at the Cleveland Institute of Music, later touring the southern United States as a well-known concert violinist, and pursued conducting at The Juilliard School.
Lee’s history-making Broadway career began when he was asked to move to New York City to join the orchestra for “Carmen Jones,” an update of Georges Bizet’s Carmen featuring an all-Black cast, in 1943. One night, Lee was asked to fill in at the podium when the show’s regular conductor was snowed in – and Leonard Bernstein happened to hear Lee’s work with the orchestra. Impressed, Bernstein invited Lee to serve as permanent music director for his musical “On the Town.” Lee agreed, becoming Broadway’s first Black conductor in 1945.
In the coming years, Lee would continue to break barriers as one of the first Black conductors to lead both a major opera company and a white orchestra in the American South, but racism denied him many opportunities afforded to white conductors of his status. Oscar Hammerstein II notably refused to hire Lee as a conductor for his touring shows, giving the excuse that stops in the South would be difficult to book with Lee at the helm. In a 1970 interview with the Atlanta Constitution, Lee recalled being turned away from auditions at two major American orchestras:
“I then made up my mind that if I can’t join you, then I will lead you. I did make good on that promise to myself. Those two orchestras that denied me even an audition, I have conducted… I just had to. I just had to show them that I was there.”
After Lee and his family expatriated to Germany in 1957, his star began to rise throughout Europe, where he became the chief conductor of Sweden’s Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in 1962. His lengthy and highly decorated career included directing tenures at Columbia University’s opera department, the Symphony of the New World, and Colombia’s Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra, and he made regular conducting appearances at Carnegie Hall through the 1980’s.
Lee passed away earlier this year at the age of 105, leaving behind a remarkable legacy for generations of conductors to come. Archivists in Lee’s hometown of Wheeling, Ohio compiled the following video in honor of his life.
First Black South African Woman to Conduct and Own an All-Black Orchestra
Young conductor and architect Ofentse Pitse is the founder and leader of Anchored Sound, an all-Black orchestra based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Pitse fell in love with music growing up in the band and choral traditions of her church, but her access to formal music education was limited; in an interview with Forbes Africa, Pitse describes the elitist environment of her childhood school’s music department:
“I remember one day just wanting to touch the piano in the music department… and being told, ‘no, you can’t touch the piano’. That made me feel so small. My argument will always be that you have to be what you want to see; you cannot fight a system if you are not willing to challenge it yourself.”
Though she went on to pursue a career in architecture, Pitse’s passion for music only grew stronger. Intrigued by standout soloists she had encountered at choir competitions in the area, Pitse gathered a handful of singers for a jam session at a local church on her 25th birthday – and immediately sensed that she had found something special. The jam sessions continued to grow week after week, and before long, an entire orchestra had materialized.
Initially apprehensive to lead the orchestra, Pitse reached out to conductor Gerben Grooten for mentorship. Describing her “raw talent and raw passion” in an interview with South Africa’s Sunday Times, Grooten explained that Pitse “has had an upside-down journey… she truly is a pioneer, doing what has never been done before.” Three years later, Anchored Sound has evolved into a 45-piece orchestra and 30-member choir, and Pitse’s conducting gifts have blossomed with countless hours of practice and coaching. Proceeds from the orchestra’s concerts and engagements go toward educational opportunities for its members.
Despite the setbacks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pitse’s hopes for Anchored Sound and the future of distinctly African orchestral music haven’t dimmed: “I’m eagerly excited… to find out how the spirit of Africa can come alive within this new world of what an orchestra can be.”