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Rachel Barton Pine: Violin Concertos by Black Composers Through the Centuries is ideastream: Recording of the Week

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Chicago-based violinist Rachel Barton Pine plays 20th-century American composer Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Jonathon Heyward, on her new Cedille Records album Violin Concertos by Black Composers Through the Centuries.

The new release marks the 25th anniversary of Pine’s pioneering 1997 Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries on Cedille.

 In addition to Pine’s 2022 recording of the Price concerto, the new album includes reissues of three performances from the earlier program, which Pine recorded with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras’ Encore Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Hege: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ Violin Concerto in A major, Op. 5, No. 2; José White Lafitte’s Violin Concerto in F-sharp minor; and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Romance in G major for Violin and Orchestra (Cedille Records CDR 90000 214).

The 25th anniversary edition substitutes Price’s concerto, recorded in January 2022, for J.J.O., Le Chevalier de Meude-Monpas’ Concerto No. 1 in D major. Recent research indicates the 18th-century French composer probably was not of African descent, Pine writes in her introductory essay, in which she discusses the genesis of the original project and the initiatives it spawned.

The album booklet includes extensive program notes by Mark Clague, who wrote the liner notes for the original recording. Clague is professor of musicology and associate dean at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance in Ann Arbor.

“Sometimes an album can change your life,” Pine writes, citing Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries (Cedille Records CDR 90000 035) as a personal example. 

That project, she says, “opened my eyes to the lack of awareness of and access to the repertoire and history of Black composers,” while generating “an outpouring of requests” for more information about the composers and where to obtain their music.

Subsequently, the violinist’s Rachel Barton Pine Foundation created its Music by Black Composers (MBC) initiative in 2001 to encourage awareness of, access to, and programming of the music of Black classical composers, which Pine calls “a primary focus of my research and advocacy efforts for over 20 years.”

MBC has collected more than 900 works by 450-plus Black composers from the 18th–21st centuries. Among many other activities, MBC publishes educational materials and offers numerous resources including free, public directories of more than 150 historic composers and over 300 living ones.

            Immersed in the musical milieus of their eras, the four composers heard on the album created compositions that “confront the classical tradition and extend it, revealing a unique creative personality,” Clague writes. Each “gives voice to a multifaceted personal experience, offering a statement of individual humanity.”

            Composer-violinist Saint-Georges (1745–1799), whose image graces the album cover, was born on the island of Guadeloupe to a noble French plantation owner and an enslaved African woman. Educated in France, he became a celebrated violinist, renowned conductor, and influential composer. He was among the first in France to write string quartets; his symphonies concertantes for two violins and string orchestra inspired Mozart.

            His three-movement Concerto for Violin in A major, No. 2 (ca. 1775), displays a “virtuosic emphasis on the upper register” that “extends five pitches higher than any of Mozart’s (exactly contemporaneous) violin concertos,” Clague writes. He took advantage of recent developments in bow design “to emphasize fleeting and precise passagework.”

            Saint-Georges was also renowned for his swordsmanship. Pine says, “I believe that some of the more extreme demands he places on the bow arm must have been inspired by his prowess as a fencer!”

             A composer and widely touring concert violinist, White Lafitte (1836–1918), born in Cuba, was the son of a white French businessman father and an Afro-Cuban mother. 

            Written in a rare key for a violin concerto, his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in F-sharp minor “is by far the most virtuosic work in this recording,” Clague writes, citing frequent double stops, “often in parallel octaves, and rippling arpeggios that traverse the entire range of the violin in just a few beats.”

            The son of an Englishwoman and a Black father from Sierra Leone, composer-violinist Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912) was born in Hoborn, near London. His single-movement Romance in G major, Op. 39, “eschews technical display in favor of lush harmonic and melodic beauty,” Clague says. Pine calls the Romance a “gorgeous” work “that rivals those of Dvorák and Beethoven.”

            Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Florence Price (1887–1953), the only composer on the album who didn’t play the violin, was active in her adopted hometown of Chicago until her death. In 1933, she became the first African American woman to have a full-length work performed by a major orchestra when the Chicago Symphony played her Symphony No. 1 in E minor.

            Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2 was among a trove of unpublished works discovered in 2009 in her former summer cottage outside St. Anne, Illinois.

            The single-movement work with contrasting sections “is cast in the composer’s mature, modernist musical style,” Clague writes. “Price weaves together two primary musical themes within a skillfully contrapuntal and expressively chromatic idiom.”

ideastreamWCLV writes….With the classical music establishment—including this radio station—rushing to correct the historic indifference shown to composers of color, it’s appropriate to pause and reflect on just how far we’ve all come.  When the original version of this album was released 25 years ago, it was an oddity: 18th and 19th century violin works by composers of African descent?   How strange!  Now we live in a world where the Philadelphia Orchestra records the symphonies of Florence Price on Deutsche Grammophon, so it may be hard to remember just how rare Rachel Barton Pine’s album and the intention behind it were back in 1997.  When WCLV’s Bill O’Connell talked to her about this album, the musical dynamo spoke passionately about championing these pieces, not for the neglect shown their authors, but because they are great pieces that deserve to be heard.  Three of the four works on the original version of this CD are included: concertos by Joseph Bologne—Chevalier de Saint-Georges and by Jose While Lafitte, plus the Romance by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.  The fourth piece on this 25th Anniversary Edition is the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Florence Price.  Ironically, there was room for the Price work because a concerto on the original release, by an obscure 18th century Frenchman named Chevalier J.J.O. de Meude-Monpas, had to be dropped.  Why?  Because recent research has revealed that Meude-Monpas’s nickname, “Le Noir,” didn’t refer to him, but to the color of his horse!    

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