3 New Albums Retell the History of Black Composers

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Recordings by the pianist Lara Downes, the Catalyst Quartet and the baritone Will Liverman aim to correct the canon.

Music can’t survive on its own. Composers not entrenched in the canon need support: from publishers, from foundations, from performers. Without these champions, it’s all too easy to slide into obscurity.

Three projects — by the Catalyst Quartet; the baritone Will Liverman; and the pianist Lara Downes — consider another avenue for maintaining a legacy: recordings. Gone are the days when classical albums could be relied on as moneymakers. But in the age of streaming, they are endlessly accessible, easy to disseminate and, in the case of these new releases, ideal for spreading the word about overlooked composers of color, whose music often exists in varying states of disrepair.

Recordings have helped propel the recent revivals of Julius Eastman and Florence Price, whose works are held up by scholars and critics today but languished for decades — neglected for a variety of reasons, including race.

When a friend of mine, the musicologist Jacques Dupuis, programmed Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Endymion’s Dream” a few years ago for the Boston ensemble Calliope, the only full score of it he could find was a rare holograph at the Library of Congress. So he traveled to Washington and spent dozens of hours transcribing it and creating a performing edition. A video of the resulting concert is the only available recording of the piece.

“I’m not sure that would be sustainable as a regular practice without robust institutional support,” he said, “which speaks to some of the hurdles in bringing equity and diversity to music programming.”

Similar labor went into the creation of these albums, made with the goal of highlighting music by Black composers and offering new possibilities for the classical canon.

The Catalyst Quartet’s Uncovered project began in 2018, growing from an initial idea of performing and recording a program of works by a few underrepresented composers. That quickly blossomed into something more ambitious: a series of focused surveys, beginning with music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Coleridge-Taylor, born to a white mother and Black father in Britain in 1875, wrote the pieces on “Uncovered, Vol. 1” while he was a student at the Royal College of Music in London. Although they reflect the influence of Brahms and Dvorak, as the violinist and scholar Matthew Leslie Santana observes in the album’s liner notes, they have the feel of “a new music project,” said Karlos Rodriguez, the quartet’s cellist.

“Except it of course isn’t new, and now it’s redefining the canon,” Rodriguez added. He pointed to the Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp minor: “You think of Brahms and Mozart clarinet quintets, but this is up there. It holds its own.”

“Uncovered, Vol. 1,” released earlier this month on the Azica label, features Catalyst — the violinists Karla Donehew Perez and Jessie Montgomery, the violist Paul Laraia and Rodriguez — in three early Coleridge-Taylor works, including quintets performed with the pianist Stewart Goodyear and Anthony McGill, the New York Philharmonic’s principal clarinet. (Montgomery, increasingly in demand as a composer, left the quartet last month and was succeeded by Abi Fayette.)

Preparation for the Coleridge-Taylor album — and future installments of Uncovered, which continues with a Florence Price recording — didn’t come as easily as, say, a recording of Beethoven quartets. The scores were not always readily available, and there wasn’t an established interpretation history.

“These pieces are not in your blood,” Donehew Perez said.

Some of the music had never been recorded, or there was only a single record, and, as Laraia said, “None of these pieces should exist in one recording.” The members of the quartet are hoping that “Uncovered, Vol. 1” prompts more Coleridge-Taylor performances.

“I think this is an interesting way for presenters to move in an interesting direction, but there doesn’t have to be shock,” Fayette said. “You can hear the Classical era and Romantic era; it’s not like you’re throwing audiences into the deep end. And I think this year has proven to us that classical music is ready for a shift.”

Will Liverman’s “Dreams of a New Day,” a program of American art songs by Black composers out Friday on Cedille Records, has been in the works for two years. But, Liverman said, the album “is coming at a good time.” Because of pandemic delays, he found himself recording it with the pianist Paul Sánchez last summer, a time of widespread Black Lives Matter demonstrations and renewed urgency for racial equity in classical music.

At the heart of the album — its roster includes both living composers and older ones like Margaret Bonds and Harry Burleigh, known for his influence on Dvorak and the threading of spirituals with classical idioms — is the premiere recording of Shawn Okpebholo’s “Two Black Churches.” It is an affecting setting of poems about the bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church in 1963 and the 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

Liverman, who is scheduled to sing this fall in the Metropolitan Opera’s season-opening production of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” — the company’s first opera by a Black composer — said that he has been performing these works in recitals, but that the recording is a way to “normalize” them.

“When I was starting off as a student, I kept seeing people like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau because they had made so many recordings,” he said. “There’s something very important about having music that’s out there and accessible.”

About two years ago, Lara Downes wanted to record an album of unearthed piano works by Florence Price. She took the project to three labels; none were interested.

“But it needed to happen,” she recalled. “So I just did it.”

A similar spirit led to the creation of Rising Sun Music, a digital label that debuted this month with the EP “Remember Me to Harlem” and will continue to release recordings of works by Black composers. “If you’re independent,” Downes said, “you can move a lot faster.”

Downes has been working to develop a community of scholars and musicians to help with the project, which seeks to highlight the work of composers of color going back more than 200 years. Two of those collaborators appear on “Remember Me to Harlem”: the oboist Titus Underwood, in William Grant Still’s “Song for the Lonely”; and the bass-baritone Davóne Tines, achingly gentle in Margaret Bonds’s “When the Dove Enters In.”

As part of the initiative, Downes also intends to release new — in some cases, the first — editions of scores, to make them more accessible to performers and students. The shaky state of these works, she said, reflects the history of American music, and of the country more broadly.

“Every story you uncover, there’s a question of, ‘Why was this covered?’” Downes said. “You’re talking about Black life and an imbalance. Part of this is bigger than the music. We can look at our art and culture as a microscope of us.”

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