British auto engineer Alec Issigonis famously described a camel as “a horse designed by a committee.” Yet in the absence of a music director, a committee from the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) designed a season as rare locally as a unicorn.
I’ve always met CSO season announcements with the same response: “This concert, very cool. This one…maybe, if I’m not busy. This I can easily skip.” Now, for the first time in 43 years, I see a Classical Series where every concert seems essential. Even the Pops and Family series contain don’t-miss stuff. The CSO just set the innovation bar higher for every local arts organization.
You’ll find the entire lineup here. Let me explain briefly why I’m buzzed.
First, it’s packed with unusual things. Except for Verdi’s Requiem and Handel’s “Messiah,” which both require a full evening, and one program featuring Wieniawski and Kodály, each concert in the classical series includes a local premiere. Instead of one brief new piece and two familiar ones, the ratio is often reversed.
Second, women and composers of color get stronger representation, not just in eight-minute curtain-raisers but in works that anchor programs. I’ve beefed for years about the absence of William Grant Still’s “Afro-American Symphony,” the first symphony by a Black composer performed by a major orchestra. Here it comes.
Third, these concerts have been thoughtfully coordinated. For example, the one conducted by former music director Christopher Warren-Green includes three British pieces about the sea, culminating in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony to texts by Walt Whitman.
Traditionalists will get Beethoven’s “Eroica,” Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris,” Holst’s “The Planets.” But consider these less common highlights:
Oct. 6 – 8: Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja: Anthem of Unity” and the “Butterfly Lovers Concerto,” a lilting piece by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. Violinist Melissa White, founding member of the Harlem Quartet, will solo.
Oct. 20 – 22: Not only Still’s symphony but Emilie Mayer’s obscure “Faust” overture and Dvořák’s spooky tone poem “The Noonday Witch.” (Note that the symphony has restored Sunday matinees for some programs.)
Jan. 19 – 20: Jennifer Koh plays Missy Mazzoli’s violin concerto “Procession.” (It’s a season for hip violinists.) Copland’s “Billy the Kid” suite is the one familiar work alongside Samuel Barber’s Second Essay and Jennifer Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” suite, co-commissioned by the CSO.
Feb. 2 – 3: The suite from Bartok’s ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin” and John Adams’ symphony, “Doctor Atomic.”
Feb. 16 – 18: Zoltán Kodály’s stirring “Dances of Galanta” and Henryk Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No.2, a good choice for concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu.
March 1 – 2: Pianist Michelle Cann plays a work she has championed, Florence Price’s Concerto in One Movement. It’s a smart pairing for “Rhapsody in Blue,” written 10 years earlier in 1924.
March 22 – 23: Not only Julia Perry’s “A Short Piece for Orchestra” but the obscure trumpet concerto by Oskar Böhme, played by CSO principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn.
April 5 – 6: Wang Jie’s Symphonic Overture “America, the Beautiful.” Wang came to Charlotte last fall when her husband, “Performance Today” emcee Fred Child, hosted WDAV’s broadcast of the CSO’s season-opening concert. She must have impressed folks at the symphony.
April 26 – 27: Vaughan Williams’s “Sea Symphony,” Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from the opera “Peter Grimes” and Welsh composer Grace Williams’ “Sea Sketches.”
May 17 – 18: Another well-curated program. “The Planets” gets matched with Caroline Shaw’s “The Observatory” and Jeremy Lamb’s “A Ride on ‘Oumuamua,” inspired by the first known interstellar object to travel our solar system.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Sept. 20 gala with Renée Fleming, one of the most popular operatic sopranos of the last 35 years, or the Feb. 9 – 10 Pops concerts with unclassifiable Regina Carter. She’ll play jazz-tinged shows that include David Schiff’s concerto “Four Sisters,” which pays homage to Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan.
If I ever got up on Saturday mornings before 11, I’d be going to two Family Series concerts. The one on Feb. 10 features music by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Europe’s’ first important Black composer; he’s having a moment, as the biopic “Chevalier” comes out in a few weeks. The one on April 13 pairs Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals” with “Thurber’s Dogs,” a suite celebrating James Thurber’s drawings by Peter Schickele. (Yes, the P.D.Q. Bach guy.)
If you’re wondering whom to applaud for this fresh programming, thank the committee: president and CEO David Fisk, director of artistic planning Carrie Graham, resident conductor Christopher James Lees (who conducts the Family Series), principal flutist Victor Wang (chair of the musicians’ Artistic Advisory Committee), cellist Sarah Markle, clarinetist Allan Rosenfeld, timpanist Jacob Lipham and principal trumpet Alex Wilborn.
Note that no Classical Series concert has a conductor listed on the website, except the one with Warren-Green. Officially, the symphony expects to name a new music director by the end of 2023. Unofficially, I hear the choice will be made by September, which means we’ll have seen all the candidates by the time the current season ends in May.
Whoever the CSO picks will undoubtedly share the philosophy that motivated the ground-breaking choices for 2023-24. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Officially, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) concert last weekend paid homage to the exhibit of Picasso landscapes next door at the Mint Museum. Picasso designed sets and costumes for Erik Satie’s “Parade” and Igor Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” when they appeared in Paris a century ago as ballets, and those comprised the first half of the CSO’s program.
Unofficially, the concert gave guest conductor Paolo Bortolameolli a second chance to impress musicians and audience during the long search for a permanent music director. I warmed to his conducting for the second time, but in a different way.
He anchored the program in February 2022 with John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, which seethes with angst and bitterness while commemorating friends who died from AIDS. There Bortolameolli took us down to despairing depths for 45 minutes before the meditative finale.
He came back last weekend more thickly bearded, more chatty and with a grin that lasted through all three compositions. As he conducted the merry finale to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, the last he wrote before upending the symphonic world with the Eroica, Bortolameolli seemed to be giving and getting joy.
Even the composers might agree the first two works on the program were lightweight. Satie was in his most puckish mood when he created this fluff inspired by Parisian music halls and American silent films: He included sections for tap shoes rapped on a desktop, police and air raid sirens, balloons to be popped dramatically, water sloshed in a jug, even hanging bottles played with tiny mallets. The music doesn’t amount to much; it’s bland for a ballet intended to startle the bourgeoisie, but the CSO jogged through it pleasantly.
Without the three singers who enliven the full-length “Pulcinella,” the eight-movement suite seems repetitive. Stravinsky based this work on Baroque themes – once thought to be by Pergolesi, now known to be the work of four or five lesser composers – and it needs the jaunty outlook Bortolameolli and the musicians provided to avoid becoming a drawn-out joke.
Beethoven’s symphony justified the ticket price. He finished it in 1802, around the time he wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament to his brothers. This letter explained that he felt suicidal over his near-deafness, and only art had kept him alive. He determined to embark on what he called the New Path, and the world-changing Eroica emerged the next year.
His symphonic voice in 1802 held echoes of Mozart and Haydn; the latter was still alive and would surely have appreciated the elegance of the second movement of the Symphony No. 2. The piece mingles drama, old-fashioned sweetness and raucous humor; more than any work of Beethoven I know, it represents the musical world he’d soon leave behind while offering glimmers of the future.
The players relished this meat-and-potatoes entrée after two bowls of musical meringue. By the time they reached the finale, violins fiddling furiously and woodwinds making rude noises one critic related to Beethoven’s chronic gastric distress, they seemed to be enjoying the music as much as Bortolameolli and the rest of us.
Pictured: Paolo Bortolameolli by Jorge Brantmayer; cropped with modified background.
The most recent Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) concert at Knight Theater was Old Home Week. Concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu got his annual solo outing in Bruch’s First Violin Concerto, which played to his strengths. The meat-and-potatoes 19th-century programming that served the CSO for many years brought three works from different decades of the Romantic Era: Fanny Mendelssohn’s Overture in C major, Bruch’s concerto, César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor.
And Mei-Ann Chen made a welcome return five years after conducting one of the most satisfying oddities in CSO history: A pipa concerto by Zhao Jiping so rare it has never been recorded. Her take on Franck added her to the list of top candidates for permanent music director. More than anyone I know, including French masters Charles Munch and Pierre Monteux, she almost convinced me Franck’s lone symphony wasn’t waaaayyyy too long.
She did that, fascinatingly, by embracing its excesses, rather than trying to hide them. The first movement, which grinds a pleasantly melodic theme into the ground through countless variations, acquired grandeur. It began to sound like Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” piling climax upon climax and reaching a kind of luxuriant ecstasy. (Perhaps Franck had read Wagner’s score, as the opera hadn’t yet come to Paris by 1888.)
Chen broadened tempos in the first two movements instead of rushing them, justly confident that the musicians’ big sound and her own passion would carry the day. Then, as Franck continued to chew his slender musical cud in the third movement, her fire and intensity prevented any feeling of lassitude.
She had earlier proved her mettle with Mendelssohn’s only published orchestral piece, which suggested not brother Felix but an opera overture by the earlier Carl Maria von Weber: Carefully crafted, varying in mood from contemplation to tumult, ably scored and melodically unmemorable. Her piano pieces and chamber works demand reappraisal – I’m just getting to appreciate them myself – but on this evidence, she hadn’t found an orchestral voice. (Not that her family’s or society’s lack of encouragement helped, of course.)
Bruch, on the other hand, gave us plenty of melodies in his concerto. It suits Lupanu, whose pairing with Chen proved especially apt. He provided tenderness, sweetness and a sense of yearning; she brought drama and Brahmsian weight to the orchestral portions, never swamping him when they played together but bringing the orchestra to full power when they didn’t.
This piece has not been ranked among the greatest violin concertos, though I’m not sure why: It lacks the profundity of Beethoven or Brahms, the mystery of Sibelius or heart-on-the-sleeve emotions of Tchaikovsky, but it’s as appealing as those by Felix Mendelssohn, Mozart or Shostakovich.
In fact, the whole evening consisted of works musical history relegates to the second tier or below. Michael Steinberg, in his helpful tome “The Symphony,” makes room for discussions of symphonies by Lou Harbison, Karl Hartmann and Roger Sessions but can’t spare a page for Franck’s. Perhaps he’d have changed his mind, if he’d heard what Chen has to say about it.
You can play Edvard Grieg’s piano concerto weightily, with thundering chords and noble grandeur. Or tenderly, with a romantic flame at its core. Or dreamily, with what Mahler called “innigkeit,” a poignant intimacy. Or, if you have enough imagination, with all three qualities in turn, as Joyce Yang did Friday with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra – and all of that in the opening movement.
She flirted with schmaltz in the slow middle section of the concerto, playing at a stretched-out tempo that could have been her choice or guest conductor Joshua Weilerstein’s. (He preferred those in the Brahms symphony that followed.) But in the finale, Yang returned to the thrilling combination of fireworks and deeper feeling that made the whole package memorable.
The show at Belk Theater began with a curiosity: the second-act prelude from Ethyl Smyth’s opera “The Wreckers.” I’ve heard five of Smyth’s large-scale works, and the instrumental pieces stick in memory longer than the vocal ones.
The opera tells of “wreckers” off the Cornish coast, who lure ships onto the rocks with misplaced lights, kill the passengers and plunder the cargo. This prelude could have been one of the “Sea Pieces” excerpted from Benjamin Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes:” We heard wind in the rattle of the snare drum, waves in the watery notes of the harp, a storm surging in the brass. The CSO played at the top of its form for Weilerstein, as it would nearly all night.
Yang then delivered not only her rendition of Grieg’s lone concerto but an appealing encore: a nocturne from his fifth book of Lyric Pieces for solo piano. I’m used to hearing the orchestrated version in the Lyric Suite, four Lyric Pieces set by Grieg and Anton Seidl, but her playing had so much color that I didn’t miss the larger sound.
Weilerstein shared a fascinating story after intermission: All three composers on the program met at a dinner in 1888, along with Tchaikovsky. That’s hard to imagine, as the Russian had earlier referred to Brahms as “a giftless bastard,” but perhaps he’d mellowed by then.
Weilerstein then explained his view of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony: It’s a musical response to the anti-Semitism and social decay he saw around him in mid-1880s Vienna, ending in “an apocalyptic destructive fury.” He led a performance that fulfilled his vision: somber, thick with angst, joyless and furiously explosive at the end. Austrian music critic Eduard Hanslick likened this symphony to “a dark well: The longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back.” We saw the well, but where were the stars?
Weilerstein’s unfussy conducting revealed fresh details in the instrumentation, partly because he went so slowly. The unusually drawn-out second movement, an andante moderato, threatened to become a stately funeral march. The only scherzo in a Brahms symphony, bouncily adapted by Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman as “Cans and Brahms,” is marked “allegro giocoso.” That means “playful,” but here it had a stern Teutonic uplift.
The orchestra committed itself completely to these ideas, and the performance cohered in the powerful last movement: tense, thrusting forward, ultimately blazing with energy. Weilerstein had the skill and intelligence to get exactly what he wanted from these musicians. I wonder if it’s what Brahms wanted.
A heartfelt classical playlist inspired by all forms of love! From composers’ dedications to their loved ones to pieces reminiscent of cherished moments, each selection captures beautiful emotions in even more beautiful music.
“Songs of Travel: IV. Youth and Love” (Ralph Vaughan Williams) – Songs of Holman: The Centered Passion
“Miscellanea, Op.16: IV. Nocturne in B-Flat Major” (Ignacy Jan Paderweski) – Night Music
“Romance of Hsiao and Ch’in” (Yi Chen) – Digital Mist
“Píseň lásky” (Josef Suk) – Tomáš Mach & Hiroko Matsumoto Play Dalibor C. Vačkář
“Africa: Land of Romance” (William Grant Still) – Still: Afro-American Symphony
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 Tuesday for the next pair of classical artists!
Co-founder of the Symphony of the New World, the first racially integrated orchestra in the United States
Like many young musicians, Harold Jones got his start as a violin student at ten years old, but it wouldn’t take long to discover his true passion. Upon hearing a fellow student play the piccolo, Jones was drawn to the flute at age fifteen and honed his craft at Chicago’s famed DuSable High School. Jones began to play professionally at the Chicago Civic Orchestra before moving to New York City in 1955.
In New York, Jones earned a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music, where he won the “Outstanding Woodwind Player” award at his graduation. He embarked on a multi-decade career as a soloist and recitalist, making his New York recital debut at Town Hall in 1966 and regularly performing with numerous top orchestras across the country.
In the 1960s, Jones began to meet with a group of fellow Black classical musicians who were frustrated with the lack of representation and opportunity for artists of color in their field. This assembly of artists – including harpist Elayne Jones, composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, and many more – formed a plan to address the inequities they experienced: “Everyone jumped to the idea,” Jones remembered. “‘Yes. Let’s do this. We’re going to do it – have an integrated orchestra.’” The Symphony of the New World was born, and with its inaugural concert at Carnegie Hall in 1965, it became the first racially integrated orchestra in the United States. Though the orchestra eventually folded in 1978 due to financial difficulties, its impact on the classical music landscape was enduring. “It built hope where there was very little,” Jones said in an interview with Allegro magazine. “It showed that, as black people, we had paid our dues and we could do it as well as anyone else… the inspiration that this could be done [remains] in all of us.”
An avid educator, Jones impacted the lives of countless students while teaching at the Westchester Conservatory of Music, Manhattan School of Music, Manhattanville College, and Brooklyn College. He served as the President of the New York Flute Club from 1976 to 1979. Jones recorded the Vivaldi flute concerti for the Library of Recorded Masterpieces in addition to four studio albums, “From Bach to Bazzini”, “Afternoon Fantasies”, “Let Us Break Bread Together”, and “This Little Light of Mine.”
In 1993, Jones founded the Antara Ensemble, an active string chamber orchestra formed “to bring quality classical music at affordable prices to the culturally diverse neighborhoods of New York.” Jones continued to program, conduct, and perform with the ensemble in the final years of his life.
After his passing in 2015, the New York Flute Club published a monthly newsletter filled with heartwarming tributes to Jones written by his students, colleagues, and loved ones. His legacy of kindness, humor, and genuine caring lives on through those he taught: “I can often feel his presence, hearing his voice and laughter, when I’m trying to teach my students the same way he taught me,” former student Meryl D. Newler wrote, “‘Keep it simple and it all makes sense.’”
To learn more about Harold Jones, read the New York Flute Club’s tribute to his life here.
Flutist and composer; half of the critically acclaimed duo Flutronix
Hailed as a “powerhouse” by the Washington Post, distinguished flutist, composer, and producer Allison Loggins-Hull’s work cannot be defined by a single genre. Part of a creative family, Loggins-Hull grew up enveloped in music and visual arts. “Music was omnipresent in my house,” she recalled in an interview with Mother Maker magazine. “My dad had a very extensive and eclectic record collection and was an amateur musician in a lot of ways.” She began playing the flute at age ten, later pursuing an undergraduate degree at SUNY Purchase and a Masters in Composition at New York University.
While finishing her undergraduate studies, Loggins-Hull began to explore composition and uploaded a few of her works to MySpace, where fellow flutist Nathalie Joachim discovered them. As fate would have it, the two musicians had quite a bit in common: not only did they live just a few blocks away from one another, they had both been experimenting with electronics in composition, and both knew they wouldn’t follow the “traditional path” to orchestral and solo work. They hit it off immediately, and in 2007, they formed the now-celebrated duo Flutronix.
In demand as a performing artist and composer, Loggins-Hull has performed at many major festivals and venues worldwide, including The Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and more. Loggins-Hull is the Cleveland Orchestra’s current Daniel R. Lewis Composer Fellow and is in the midst of a packed 2022-2023 season, including eight world premieres of her work and an East Coast tour with Flutronix and Third Coast Percussion. As an educator, she has served on the faculty of the Juilliard School’s Music Advancement Program and The John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University.
In 2020, Loggins-Hull was commissioned to compose a work for the Library of Congress’s Boccaccio Project, an initiative that premiered musical reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic online. Performed by Flutronix, Loggins-Hull’s piece “Have and Hold” responded to feelings of isolation during the pandemic and news of police killings earlier in the year. “I was really craving just the feeling of having companionship and being near people and just physical contact,” she told NPR. “Whenever these shootings happen, I still have that desire to hold people that I love, even to hold people that I don’t know who share this common experience we all share as black people in this country.”
Loggins-Hull’s other myriad accomplishments include playing as co-principal flutist on the soundtrack to The Lion King (2019), co-producing Joachim’s GRAMMY-nominated album Fanm d’Ayiti (2020), and scoring the 2019 documentary Bring Them Back. She launched the project Diametrically Composed, “a collection of newly commissioned works featuring flute, voice and piano exploring the duality of being a mother and an artist,” in 2021.
First Black member of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra; the BSO’s first Black principal player
There’s a reason harpist Ann Hobson Pilot is so often described as “legendary:” at 79, she remains one of history’s most esteemed harpists after over 55 years as a top soloist, recording artist, and educator. Born into a musical family in 1943, Pilot took up piano as her first instrument, following in the footsteps of her concert pianist mother. When she switched to the harp at age 14, the racist backlash from others at her predominantly white school was swift. In one incident she described to Sarasota Magazine, “[A friend’s mother] pointed to a portrait on the wall of a white woman, with long blond hair, playing the harp, and she said, ‘See, she is what a harpist is supposed to look like.’ I was shocked that she said that to me. What did she want me to do, quit?”
Pilot persisted, and at just 18, her skill began to garner public attention as she performed alongside artists like Peggy Lee, Andy Williams, and Johnny Mathis at a Philadelphia nightclub. Following her subsequent studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music, she won a position as a master harpist with the National Symphony Orchestra in 1966 and joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra as assistant principal harp in 1969, becoming both orchestras’ first Black member. Pilot also made history when she earned the principal harp position in 1980, which made her the BSO’s first Black principal player. During her time in Boston, she served on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music and Boston University for decades, toured the globe as a soloist, and recorded numerous albums.
Though Pilot officially retired in 2009 after 40 years with the BSO, she immediately returned to open the BSO and Carnegie Hall seasons with the premiere of “On Willows and Birches,” a concerto written for her by John Williams. Pilot’s solo career continued to flourish after her retirement: “Everybody says to me, ‘Do you miss it?,’ and I can’t really say that I do, because I am still playing,” she told PBS. “I will continue as long as I can.” She released her latest album, “A Dream,” in 2020 and has made many high-profile returns to the stage, including a performance at the opening of the the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
A frequent award recipient, Pilot has been honored twice with the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Distinguished Alumni Award and has received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Boston Musicians Association and the Talent Development League of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. She has been granted honorary doctorates from Tufts University and Bridgewater State College and became the only harpist recipient of the League of American Orchestras’ Golden Baton award, its highest honor, in 2017.
Harpist, educator, and activist; founder of Challenge the Stats and Artistic Director of the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble
In 2007, teenage harpist Angelica Hairston found a mentor in a living legend: Ann Hobson Pilot. “It was so gratifying to look into the eyes of a professional orchestral harpist from one of the top symphonies in the country who looked like me,” she said of their first meeting in an interview with Lyon & Healy. “She taught me to understand that it is possible to pursue a classical music career that reaches major stages and secondly, that I was not alone.”
Growing up surrounded by music of all genres, Hairston gained a new perspective on the art form’s power while listening to gospel music at her grandmother’s church. “I learned that the world wasn’t looking for artists who only played the right notes,” she explained. “What the world needed were more artists who told a deeper and more meaningful story.” She began her musical study as a violinist at 4 years old and transitioned to the harp at 12. Hairston performed on From the Top for the first time at age 18, later winning the From the Top Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award, a scholarship that aided her studies at Toronto’s Royal Academy of Music.
While completing her graduate degree at Northeastern University as a 2015 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Fellow, Hairston founded Challenge the Stats, a growing initiative dedicated to empowering BIPOC classical artists and challenging racial inequality and systemic oppression in classical music. She currently provides free harp instruction to over 90 students as the Artistic Director of the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble.
Hairston is an alum of the Sphinx Organization’s SphinxLEAD, a 2019 winner of a Georgia Governor’s Award for the Arts & Humanities, and a recipient of the 2020 Atlanta Magazine’s Women Making a Mark Award. Now 30, Hairston remains dedicated to activism in the Atlanta area and beyond as a musician, educator, speaker, and consultant. “Everything we do is right at the intersection of classical music and justice,” she told Atlanta Magazine in 2021. “Facing a pandemic – but especially as a Black woman facing this racial reckoning and all the violence that’s been happening toward Black communities – has been really challenging, but I feel grateful that the work I do has a direct impact on what’s happening in the world around us.”
First Black singer to perform as part of a major American opera company with an otherwise white cast
Among many other “firsts,” baritone, educator, and activist Todd Duncan originated the role of Porgy in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in 1935. Unimpressed by the 100 baritones who had previously auditioned for the role, Gershwin received a tip from the current New York Times music critic: he should reach out to Duncan.
Just a few bars of an aria later, Gershwin offered the role to him personally – but Duncan, who described his typical fare as “Schubert and Schumann and Brahms,” wasn’t sold yet. “When [Gershwin] started [playing] the opening music… I looked at my wife and said quietly, ‘This stinks,’” he recalled. “By the time twenty minutes or a half hour had passed I just thought I was in heaven. These beautiful melodies in this new idiom – it was something I had never heard.” With that, history was made, and Porgy became Duncan’s signature role.
Born to a music teacher in Danville, Kentucky, Duncan’s early interest in the art form led him to pursue a career as a singer and professor after receiving a B.A. from Butler University and an M.A. from Columbia University’s Teachers College. In 1931, Duncan accepted a teaching position at Howard University, where he eventually became head of the public school music and professional voice departments. Success as a performer followed soon after: in 1934, Duncan starred in an Aeolian Opera production of Cavalleria Rusticana with an all-Black cast, and audiences instantly took notice of his “elegant phrasing” and “dramatic persuasiveness.”
In 1945, Duncan made his New York City Opera debut as Tonio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. This achievement made him not only the first Black singer to perform with the company, but also the first to perform as part of any major American opera company with an otherwise white cast. He would go on to sing several roles with the NYCO, including Escamillo in Bizet’s Carmen and the title role in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Duncan returned to Broadway to star in the musicals Cabin in the Sky (1940) and Lost in the Stars (1949) and appeared in two films: Syncopation (1942) and Unchained (1955). Before it became one of the most recognizable songs of the 20th century,the song “Unchained Melody” was written for the latter film – and Duncan was the first singer to ever record it.
During his 25-year career as a recitalist, Duncan sang 2,000 recitals in 56 countries, once confessing that he adored the “thrill of holding an audience even on your faintest note.” He spent his later years as a revered voice professor in Washington and at the Curtis Institute of Music. Among other awards and honors, Duncan was the recipient of an honorary doctorate from Howard University, a George Peabody Medal, Tony and New York Drama Critics Awards, and the President of Haiti’s Medal of Honor and Merit.
Powerhouse tenor who recently made debuts at the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall, first Black singer to perform the role of Radamès (Verdi’s Aida) at the Met
If you’re not sure whether a skill fits on your resume, sometimes it pays to include it anyway – and tenor Limmie Pulliam is the proof! After graduating from Oberlin Conservatory, Pulliam faced size discrimination at every turn and struggled to build an opera career. “I’d always made myself a promise that if it ever stopped being fun, I would move on to do something else,” he explained in a recent NPR interview. “I kept that promise to myself, and I moved on.”
Pulliam’s departure from the opera world lasted over a decade. He worked in security for years, even starting his own firm, before taking a leave of absence to serve as a field organizer during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. At one event, a local beauty pageant winner who was scheduled to sing the national anthem suddenly bailed. “My boss looks at me and says, I remember on your resume that you used to sing opera. Why don’t you sing it?,” he recalled. “And he didn’t leave me much choice.”
What Pulliam heard surprised him:
“[My voice] had gained a certain warmth. It had matured. And it had taken on a much more burnished, darker quality to it that I felt really kind of set me apart from anyone that I was hearing in the industry currently.”
Once the campaign was over, Pulliam threw himself into vocal study. He nurtured his new sound privately, even revisiting videotaped lessons from Oberlin, then began studying with a pedagogue in Memphis. Three years later, a friend came across a video Pulliam had posted on YouTube. She passed it on to her husband, the music director of a small opera company in Seattle, and Pulliam booked his first role back in the game.
Pulliam proved himself a force to be reckoned with after winning the National Opera Association’s Vocal Competition in 2012. He performed in young artist programs with Cleveland Opera, Opera Delaware, and Opera Memphis and maintained a busy calendar of engagements, building up to a series of high-profile debuts in recent years. Critics lauded his “healthy, focused, ringing tenor” at his 2021 L.A. Opera debut, where he starred as Manrico in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. In December 2022, Pulliam broke a historical precedent with his Metropolitan Opera debut by becoming the company’s first Black artist to portray Radamès in Verdi’s Aida. Most recently, he made his Carnegie Hall debut singing the title role in R. Nathaniel Dett’s “The Ordering of Moses.”
At 47, Pulliam is a rapidly rising star – and aside from his otherworldly voice, his persistence says it all. “My mantra has become, you know, if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready,” he explained to NPR. “You never know when that phone call may come, whether it’s a performance or offer you a particular role or any other type of job opportunity. But do the work to be prepared when that call comes.”
In the same year of her graduation, Jones became the first Black person to play in an opera orchestra as her eleven-year career with the New York City Opera began. She later co-founded the Symphony of the New World, the first racially integrated orchestra in the United States, in the 1960s. During this time, she met with a group of fellow musicians determined to solve a glaring problem: orchestras weren’t hiring women and people of color. Jones and her peers developed the concept of the “blind” audition, now a virtually universal practice in symphony orchestras.
Jones was said to have become the first Black principal musician in a major American orchestra upon winning a blind audition at the San Francisco Symphony in 1972. “I wouldn’t have gotten the job if the screen wasn’t in play,” she later said, “I’m the recipient of a thing that I worked on.” She was immediately popular with audiences and critics: one reporter wrote that her playing was “so rounded and suave [he] just about fell out of [his] seat.” However, when Jones was up for tenure nearly two years later, she was denied – a result that came with no explanation and conflicted with the advice of music director Seiji Ozawa. All six of her white colleagues hired in the same year were granted tenure.
“As a musical percussionist… because some people don’t think of us as musicians! But I loved every minute of it. I was lucky; music came easy for me, and I would like everybody to feel and love the music the same way that I feel and love it.”
More information about Jones’ life and legacy can be found in her autobiography, Little Lady with a Big Drum (2021), and in obituaries from the New York Times and San Francisco Classical Voice. Watch Jones’ Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame induction video here.
First African-American principal in National Symphony Orchestra history
Given a choice between sports and music as a child, timpanist Jauvon Gilliam immersed himself in both – but luckily for today’s audiences at the Kennedy Center, music eventually won out. Like Elayne Jones, Jauvon Gilliam got an early start on the piano, winning his first national competition at 11 and later entering Butler University on a full scholarship for piano performance. A few years later, Gilliam graduated from Butler with a degree in arts administration and a new passion: the timpani.
Gilliam was hired fresh out of graduate school as principal timpanist at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. “I knew nothing about Canada,” he revealed in an interview with the Winnipeg Free Press. “After I won the audition, I went to Earls on Main and pulled out a map to see where Winnipeg was.” After seven highly successful years with the WSO, Gilliam bested roughly 60 candidates to win the National Symphony Orchestra’s principal timpanist position in 2009, a unanimous selection that made him the first African-American principal in the orchestra’s history.
Now the Director of Percussion Studies at the University of Maryland and a coach for the National Youth Orchestra in addition to his duties at the NSO, Gilliam makes a point to invest in his students as his teachers invested in him. “I try to give [my students] as much information, as much help as I can,” he told the American Federation of Musicians in 2020. “If you have a kid who’s willing to put the work in, the sky’s the limit.”
A founding board member of the Alliance of Black Orchestral Percussionists, Gilliam has been a dedicated advocate for diversity in classical music throughout his career. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, he co-founded We Over Me Productions, described in his Kennedy Center bio as “a production company created to use the arts to tell a story that will keep the conversation of systemic racism, social inequities and injustices at the forefront of people’s consciousness in an effort to create lasting change through tangible actions.” In 2021, Gilliam opened The Shed DMV, a multifunctional rehearsal space for artists of all levels and backgrounds, which now serves thousands of local students through community outreach efforts.
To read more about Jauvon Gilliam, check out his Kennedy Center bio here.
Like many classical concertgoers, I often raise my eyebrows when folks erupt into applause during the silence between movements of a symphony. I know that behavior can be disruptive, distracting or rude. On Friday night at Knight Theater, I did it anyway.
Guest conductor Vinay Parameswaran had just dropped his baton arm and slumped an inch or two after leading the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) through the opening of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5. The movement had apt grandeur, a thrilling undercurrent of menace, a tremendous kind of humming energy and beauty. In those 15 minutes, he showed why the CSO might want him as music director. And as he took a respite before the second half of the piece, I was not alone in clapping for him.
The second movement started with an oddly finicky daintiness that eventually vanished when full-blooded melody flowed forth. From there to the end, allegedly inspired by a circle of swans above Sibelius’ head, Parameswaran showed skill and insight. For instance, he brought the strings up to be as prominent as the brass in the glorious finale. (Pop culture factoid: The band First Class copied this brass melody exactly in 1974 in the top-5 hit “Beach Baby.”)
The symphony capped a program of lesser-known but admirable works: Gabriella Smith’s chameleonic “Field Guide,” Benjamin Britten’s playful song cycle “Les Illuminations,” and William Grant Still’s somber, sometimes majestic “Poem for Orchestra.”
Parameswaran described Smith’s piece as an interpretation of sounds collected on rambles along the California coast and into South America; he said she wrote it for the 70th birthday of her mentor, John Adams, and suggested we listen for Adams’ influence in the motoric rhythms.
Sure enough, I heard that, along with what may have been the buzzing of insects, sounds of the deep woods, mild cacophony of traffic and unidentifiable noises, occasionally in conflict with a warm melody that emerged and submerged. The finale brought gratifying cohesion, possibly suggesting the unity of nature.
I’m used to tenors singing Arthur Rimbaud’s oblique lyrics in “Les Illuminations,” but Britten wrote it in his 20s for a soprano. The absence of a printed program, my inability to speak French and my lack of desire to squint at texts on my cellphone meant I enjoyed Alexandra Smither’s voice without worrying about Rimbaud’s meaning. (A sample: “These are cities! Processions of Mabs in russet, opaline gowns climb the ravines. Farther up, with their feet in the waterfall and the brambles, stags suckle Diana. The Bacchantes of the suburbs sob, and the moon burns and howls. Venus enters into the caverns of blacksmiths and hermits.”)
Smither had an operatic but never histrionic sense of drama and comedy, and her voice remained attractively intimate, despite a widening vibrato near the end of the 21-minute cycle.
Still remains one of my favorite little-known composers. I wish the CSO would play any of his five symphonies, the first being my choice, but I was glad to hear his 10-minute “Poem” live. He premiered it in 1944, when the outcome of World War II was in doubt. He’d served in the U.S. Navy during World War I, the “War to End All Wars,” and seems in this intense piece to be expressing anger and frustration at humankind’s continued stupidity.Though it moves toward a major-key ending that could be interpreted as guarded optimism, its most potent moments come earlier. (Here, too, the brass shone.) The CSO has seldom sounded so big, so muscular. If Parameswaran can get that sound at will, he’s a serious contender for the job.
The 2023 GRAMMYs is this February and there’s a new sub-category that’s being introduced–video game music. Video game music is finally being recognized under the Music for Visual Media category. Here are some highlights about this new sub-category’s nominees:
Aliens: Fireteam Elite by Austin Wintory, composer
Aliens: Fireteam Elite’s playstyle is similar to the game World War Z and the Gears of War titles–but you’re in outer space fighting the alien creatures from the franchise Aliens. Its music can be described as having a modern, militaristic sound with a gritty character that shows off its grungy aspects. The game’s composer, Austin Wintory, explains this best by sharing his approach to combine the action and sci-fi/horror scores from the previous composers of the franchise’s films. You can find more in-depth details about the composition process within the videos on Wintory’s YouTube channel.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Dawn Of Ragnarok by Stephanie Economou, composer
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarok is the final downloadable content (DLC) expansion for the title Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. You’re met with an atmospheric soundtrack that uses Norse music styles with elements of heavily distorted guitars and fast tempos from the black metal genre. In a Games hub article, composer Stephanie Economou says,
“One of the reasons it’s so rewarding to compose music for Assassin’s Creed is that you have these historically-driven narratives, and the music can echo the sounds of that time while still being hyper-modern and edgy and rule-breaking.”
Economou speaks more about how she made the soundtrack in the full article. If you want to listen to the full soundtrack of the DLC, click the video below.
Call Of Duty®: Vanguard by Bear McCreary, composer
Set during World War II, players join a special team of Allied soldiers to take down the last efforts of the Third Reich in Call Of Duty®: Vanguard. The game’s soundtrack takes a cinematic approach with orchestral and rock elements that put you right in the action. In order to match the personal perspective of the storyline, the musical foundation is laid with improvised melodies and then built outwards with the orchestral aspects. You can find more information on the creation of the soundtrack in a video with the composer, Bear McCreary. To listen to the full soundtrack, click here.
Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy by Richard Jacques, composer
Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy has you protecting the cosmos as Star-Lord with the other Guardians. Its music brings the heroism from the Marvel films straight into the game. There are various musical themes used throughout the soundtrack–embracing the decision-making gameplay to enhance the player’s experience. The game’s composer, Richard Jacques, goes into detail about the different themes used in this video here and the creation of the score here.
Old World by Christopher Tin, composer
Players are nation leaders preserving their legacy in the historical strategy game Old World–where each turn is a year of your dynasty. The soundtrack pays homage to the styles used within Arabic music. One way is through the music’s improvised nature–where the performers play a key part in the musical composition process. In a podcast episode, composer Christopher Tin mentions,
“The fundamental way that a lot of these musical forms are presented in Arabic music is actually more improvised–and its actually one that feeds off of a live performance where you get energy back from the audience, right? You sorta whip them into the state of like ecstatic-frenzy through your performance and they applaud and, you know, there’s a very interactive element to it. But if you take that idea–that authentic Arabic idea of a performance being the composition–where does that leave room for an outside composer like myself, if the performer is in fact the composer, right?”
Tin talks more about the process with the Lead Designer of Old World and the CEO of Mohawk Games in the full podcast episode here. You can find more about the game’s soundtrack on Tin’s Youtube Channel.
You can tune-in to the GRAMMYs on Sunday, February 5th, to see who wins. To see the full list of nominees, click here.