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Heart On The Wall / Toppin, Williams, Dvorak Symphony Orchestra

Owens / Toppin / Dvorak Sym Orchestra / Williams
Release Date: 11/08/2011 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1314  
Composer:  Robert OwensJulius P. WilliamsRobert L. MorrisNkeiru Okoye
Performer:  Louise Toppin
Conductor:  Julius P. Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Dvorak Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Back Order: Usually ships in 2 to 3 weeks.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

HEART ON THE WALL: African American Art Songs for Orchestra Louise Toppin (s); Julius P. Williams, cond; Dvo?ák SO ALBANY 1314 (63:30 Text and Translation)

OWENS Heart on the Wall. WILLIAMS Myths of History. MORRIS Lyric Suite. OKOYE Songs of Harriet Tubman Read more

This unusual CD presents four first-time recordings of song cycles by black American composers, sung by soprano Louise Toppin and conducted by one of the composers, Julius P. Williams. One of the more arresting features of these cycles is that they are all for soprano and orchestra rather than piano accompaniment.

The earliest of these, Heart on the Wall, is not based on an African-American theme but rather on the commedia dell’arte figure of Pierrot, though the poems were written by Langston Hughes. It was composed in 1968 for the famed coloratura soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs by Robert Owens (b.1925), who has lived in Germany since 1959. Since I did not really hear a coloratura high range in Toppin’s CD of spirituals, I wondered how she was going to cope with this music. Oddly enough, most of the high notes are in the compass of a regular lyric soprano range, though the leaps upward are a bit stressful and many of those notes are sung softly. Toppin manages them with aplomb. The music is tonal, but with unusual harmonic substitutions at times.

Much the same may be said of Williams’s Myths of History (2005), based on the writings of Edgar Toppin. Indeed, from a strictly musical standpoint, the melodic structures and harmonic frameworks are remarkably similar. The first piece emphasizes the point that Africa was the cradle of mankind, the second that history “can have a balanced perspective” if you correct “long-held misconceptions,” the third that no matter how bad slavery was for black African Americans, you have to face the fact that slavery existed “among all people at all times.” “History,” the second of the three pieces, is the most lyric and contemplative, “Slavery” (the third) the most dissonant and dramatic. Here Toppin has a little trouble with one of the forte high Cs, but the high D that crowns the work is nailed perfectly.

Robert L. Morris, the writer of the Lyric Suite, has an unusual background. He was already composing and arranging while still in grammar school; while in college, he was a ghost composer-arranger for Duke Ellington’s benefit show My People. His music has been performed by Philip Brunelle’s Vocal Essence, the Dale Warland Singers, the Moses Hogan Singers, and Toronto’s R. Nathaniel Dett Chorale. This suite is based on black vernacular texts. Appropriately, Morris’s music is in the style of American spirituals, though his melodies are original and his orchestration textured with dark winds and brass. Toppin sings with added fervor in the opening dramatic declamation, “Rockin’ Jerusalem.” The gospel blues “What Shall I Do?” starts out a cappella , then when the orchestra enters, it has a very Ellingtonian feel to it. “Scandalizin’ My Name” sounds based on the standard spiritual of the same title, but has a few interesting melodic twists (and high notes!) toward the end. “Lament: This May Be My Las’ Time” is, again, strongly Ellington-like, in this case similar to his Come Sunday . The final song, “Juba: Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit,” is a wonderful piece in what I would call, for lack of a better simile, an uptempo cakewalk. The final phrases are simply wonderful.

The liner notes claim that Nkeiru Okoye is “the most-performed African-American female symphonic composer in the U.S.” Unfortunately, I must claim no prior knowledge of her music. This song cycle is actually a suite of the four “name” arias sung by the title character in her opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom. As a child, Tubman introduces herself as Araminta or just plain “Minty,” her childish patter contrasting with the realities of life as a slave. Later, “My name is Harriet now, don’t call me Minty anymore,” then the adult Harriet introduces herself as a free woman. In the end, the seasoned leader in the Underground Railroad proclaims, “I Am Moses, the Liberator.” Okoye’s music is also tonal, but much moodier than the preceding three composers and painted with dark colors: low strings, soft trombone choirs, and trumpets playing in their low midrange. I’m sure that, in the context of the opera, there is music of contrast that comes before and after these arias, but taken out of context and put into a suite, there is an element of sameness to them, though the second aria has a marvelous uptempo section in the middle for contrast. I should point out, in fairness, that Okoye’s music is very well crafted and especially interesting in her choice of orchestration (note the sub-contra piano playing along with the low trombones at the opening of “I Am Moses”—this puts me in mind of some of the orchestration that Eric Dolphy did for John Coltrane on the latter’s Africa/Brass sessions), and Toppin’s very dramatic reading of “I Am Harriet Tubman, Free Woman” is really wonderful, relaxed, with plasticity of rhythm and great commitment. Toppin caps the suite off with a great high D while still managing to keep her diction clear.

I should be remiss if I did not mention that Julius Williams’s conducting is superbly detailed in texture, bringing out the unusual timbres used by these composers (including himself) yet being sensitive enough to realize that he is accompanying a singer, and therefore should not overpower her. The Dvo?ák Symphony Orchestra plays extremely well considering that this music is probably not rhythmically indigenous to it. An excellent disc.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Heart on the Wall by Robert Owens
Performer:  Louise Toppin (Soprano)
Conductor:  Julius P. Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Dvorak Symphony Orchestra
Myths of History by Julius P. Williams
Performer:  Louise Toppin (Soprano)
Conductor:  Julius P. Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Dvorak Symphony Orchestra
Lyric Suite by Robert L. Morris
Performer:  Louise Toppin (Soprano)
Conductor:  Julius P. Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Dvorak Symphony Orchestra
Songs of Harriet Tubman by Nkeiru Okoye
Performer:  Louise Toppin (Soprano)
Conductor:  Julius P. Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Dvorak Symphony Orchestra

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