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Castle of Our Skins at Gardner


Florence Price

In yet another lane change for the Gardner Museum Sunday afternoon series, Boston-based Castle of Our Skins provisioned a string quartet, two dancers and ten cellos to carry out “Secret Desire to Black. Putting forth four black American composers, the concert proved refreshing and rewarding, albeit a little longwinded. 

The opening to both halves of “Secret Desire” showed programming smartness, first with Fuging Tune: Resolute, and second with Calvary Ostinato by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004). Both are from his 1973 Lamentations: Black Folk Song Suite for solo cello. They are, in the composer’s words, “the reflection and statement of a peoples crying out.” Guest artist, cellist Seth Parker Woods, roared and growled out low string blues subjects to attractive earthy effect despite some loss of musical clarity. Then, he came back for a pizzicato piece with a four-note pattern repeating over and again with newer and newer material plucked in. That was the most fun to hear. Woods lightened the room with his own fine-finish applied across the bowless popping surfaces. Little secret how these short works were penned given a certain amount of indigenous splurge and always recognized by Woods in somewhat purer temperament. 

Unearthed not long ago, String Quartet in A Minor of Florence Price (1887-1953) finally achieved its Boston premiere. For years, the music had been lying in the recesses of an Arkansas library. Recall that the Price’s G Major Quartet, composed in 1929, saw its revival but only a few years ago. What of the four-movement opus she wrote in the fall of 1935, taking but five weeks to compete? Overly long, its 32 minutes lit up and dimmed, with the best coming in the outer sections of the Andante Cantabile and just about all throughout Juba, the dancing third movement. As in other Price works, the folkish, what is first nature, or American, alternates with the academic, what is learned, or European. The harmonic language often tells the difference, primal pentatonic leanings versus late 19th-century chromatic tendencies. Violinists Gabriela Diaz and Mina Lavcheva joined with violist Ashleigh Gordon, and Seth Parker Woods casting the work as mix with pastoral and conservatory flares, ragtime and sonata form. Juba danced truly speaking Price’s eloquent native tongue so steeped in old-time Southern expression.        

Alvin Singleton (b. 1940) composed Secret Desire to be Black for string quartet in 1988. Diaz repeatedly moved her finger from one note to another just a bit higher. That put the blues into the head in elevated delivery. Lavcheva stroked her violin somewhat as Vivaldi did in his Spring concerto, dog barking, slow movement. Gordon and Woods held their ground with drone tones. Spellbinding for a good while, that state, unfortunately, did not last. More complexity set in and began to twist and contort this intriguing Black expression. Despite the performers’ mustering muscle-sized instrumental forces, they ultimately failed to raise the quasi-minimalist-turned mind-bending work to gratifying levels. Singleton outstayed his ever-so-promisingly imagined concept.

The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc by Julius Eastman (1940-1990) dates from 1981. If you like strings, and even more, cellos, then this is for you. Ten cellos in all at times sounded as heavy industrial machinery, or maybe just a locomotive as one listener had visualized. We learned from annotator Paul Griffiths that “The score, lost after the early performance, has been reconstructed by Clarice Jensen from a radio recording.” Having heard this info and the ten—what would you call all this, a flock or herd, or dectet or tentet—how could such a feat be accomplished!

The ten cellists super-streamed ferocity over quick grinding 16ths in ongoing simple common meter: Javier Caballero, Leo Eguchi, Joshua Gordon, Jeremy Harman, Patrice Jackson, Stephen Marotto, Francesca McNeeley, Rhonda Rider, Nathaniel Taylor, and Seth Parker Woods. Kyle Marshall choreographed the dance taking place right in front of the cellists. Perhaps the dance adopted a wondrous theme of survival under shifting lights of white, to blue, to red. Oluwadamilare Ayorinde and Bria Symoné Bacon barefoot, in grey khakis and off-white thermal-like tops, energetically mixed classical and contemporary styles in semi-abstract reenactments of submission, bondage, survival, and hope. The dance moved to balconies of Calderwood but only in limited ways and not always in full view.

A newer lane for Gardner certainly provided a big draw, yet had this Castle of Our Skins production move a bit more quickly, Calderwood’s audience would have left knowing far more about America, its music and dance, and feeling really good about it.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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