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Recorded Music Of The African Diaspora

Watkins / Hyman / Dixon / Albert / Smith
Release Date: 08/10/2010 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1200   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Mary D. WatkinsOlly Wilson
Performer:  Donnie Ray AlbertBonita HymanRodrick Dixon
Conductor:  Leslie DunnerKirk Smith
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New Black Music Repertory Ensemble
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

WATKINS 5 Movements in Color. WILSON Of Visions and Truth Leslie B. Dunner, Kirk Smith conds; Bonita Hyman (mez); Rodrick Dixon (ten); Donnie Ray Albert (bar); New Black Music Repertory Ens ALBANY TROY1200 (61:00)

This is the first in a hopefully long-running series of music from the African diaspora. With funding from the Center for Black music research at Columbia College Chicago, as well as Albany records, this aims to create a legacy of Read more black music, crossing continents and genres. In the bloated, overfamiliar classical catalog, this is a shamefully under-recorded genre, with only Naxos’s American Classics series up until now being prepared to touch on and explore American’s vast and diverse heritage. Rather than begin somewhere familiar, like with, say, Coleridge-Taylor, Albany has plunged us straight in with two contemporary composers, each with a half-hour work.

Mary D. Watkins seems equally at ease across jazz and classical disciplines. Alongside playing piano in jazz bands are also countless opera commissions and film scoring. Her tone poem Five Movements in Color (1994) confirms her natural ability to combine jazz and symphonic writing without awkwardness. From a repeated xylophone figure, Watkins builds up a complex orchestral tapestry of traditional African instruments, then brings in the melody on strings. The menacing cross rhythms of brooding horns and bells and swirling piccolo themes conjure up an uncertain new world, while retaining the opening percussion’s dissonance.

The second movement is a beautiful string-led reminiscence of the congregational tune Remember Me , developed by Watkins cleverly into something more dark and enigmatic, before switching to a jazzy third movement and an exotic and dark finale that displays Watkins’s bold orchestral palette. Simply and effectively written, Watkins’s work has obvious echoes of Bernstein in the urban, swinging sounds of the third movement and confidence in tackling multiple genres, including a very cinematic quality. There is some pretension in what is trying to be depicted (a lot is covered, from the journey of the black people in America to the age of consumerism) but any mawkishness is neatly avoided by the bold textures and flow of the piece.

If Watkins’s skillful and accessible fusions come from familiar influences, Olly Woodrow Wilson demonstrates an arguably more advanced musical language with his song cycle Of Visions and Truth , from 1991, ostensibly a collection of texts that chart the position of the African American male through recent history. Wilson cleverly infuses these traditional and modern poems with both the spiritual and Modernist idiom. Sparsely scored for chamber ensemble, the piece opens with a traditional spiritual, I’ve Been Buked , a bitter yet hopeful tale of a slave’s fate, its repetitive rhythms and refrains working in tandem with Wilson’s tense, Brittenesque sound world. The part-lullaby, part-vocalise of the haunting third section is chillingly accompanied by muted strings and percussion, at once detaching the old folk tune from any sense of comfort, a mother and child in “the debased institution of chattel slavery.” The setting of Henry Dumas’s Ikef is a little more upbeat, but still an unsettling, polytonal depiction of a young man’s memories.

The astonishing final movement for baritone and tenor again puts me in mind of Britten, in particular his own baritone and tenor plea at the end of the War Requiem . Here Wilson brilliantly depicts the slaves’ will to fight back, the repeated lines of the baritone sounding like both a punch and a mantra, while the tenor’s tortuously high lines show an unbreakable will. With its spiky interludes and thematic journeys, I heard it more as an oratorio, rather than song cycle. This is uncomfortable, razor-sharp music and Wilson is well served by his singers. Bonita Hyman is very luminous in sound, although words could be clearer, while Donnie Ray Albert sings magnificently, equally idiomatic in both the atonal and folk elements. Rodrick Dixon is a beefy tenor for this sort of music, but he handles the difficult writing well.

This is a fascinating start to something that could have been so earnest, worthy, and begging for grants. Provided this music gets enough live performance, and plenty is done to advertize the series, Albany could break this out of the niche market. This is good music on every level and very well performed by both ensembles. Documentation is extensive and the sound is clear and bright, even if there is a slight halo to the singers. What I would like to see is more cohesion with the programming. Although both works are from the same period and deal with the black people’s place in modern American society, we still basically have two contrasting, unrelated works, when in fact each composer could have justified a single disc to him- or herself. Strongly recommended nevertheless.

FANFARE: Barnaby Rayfield
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Works on This Recording

Five Movements in Color by Mary D. Watkins
Conductor:  Leslie Dunner
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New Black Music Repertory Ensemble
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Of Visions and Truth: A Song Cycle by Olly Wilson
Performer:  Donnie Ray Albert (Baritone), Bonita Hyman (Mezzo Soprano), Rodrick Dixon (Tenor)
Conductor:  Kirk Smith
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New Black Music Repertory Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 

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