Some events exceed both their parts and our expectations. Such a tonic for these times was the concert by Castle of Our Skins, held at the Boston Athenæum in a dual celebration: the library’s extensive renovations paired with the artistic contributions of American Black composers and poets. The four sections of the November 17th event represented Love and Self, Love and Humanity, Love and Heritage, Love and Future, featuring poetry, either alone or as a setting for the musical selections, two string quartets and art songs. Angel Dye, Castle of Our Skins’ 2022—2023 Creative in Residence, explicated and later contributed her own poem, “Now, Then, Always.”
The familiar Long Room, newly decorated to superb effect, now features a Georgian-green back wall recreating the 19th-century practice of skying paintings. Three Boston street scenes, two by recognized Black artist Alan Rohan Crite (1910—2007), are included among the masterfully hung portraits, mostly of women and some by women, spanning the early-19th– through the mid-20th century. The recently acquired life-size but narrow portrait of Nancy Graves by Edmund Tarbell (1862—1938) stands out. On the left we see two mid-19th-century landscapes by Black artist Robert S. Duncanson, as competent as any of the Hudson River painters.
The first musical selection, a lyric poem “Love Let The Wind Cry” by Sappho, Greek poetess of the 7th to 6th century BC, provided the text for Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989). Soprano Brianna S. Robinson broke out with forceful fff in a long single note with the opening word, “Love”—holding the vowel, of course, with a voice which one quickly realized could reach the deepest recesses of the Met Opera auditorium. She continued in mellifluous full-throated voice in a sensitive interpretation beginning “Let the wind cry”… . The fourth section, Love and Future, opened with a poem by Maya Angelou, “Touched by an Angel,” which, in its three stanzas, stresses the complexity of love.
The players interspersed the three movements of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s String Quartet No. 1 in three of the four sections. His music eschewed the modernism popular in his era and favors counterpoint and rhythmic inventiveness with haunting references to blues and Negro spirituals, occasionally with a jig-like syncopation. The sonority and yearning of the quartet owe a lot to Aaron Copland. The main musical theme revolves around fa mi do re. The elegiac second movement continuously repeats three- or four-note figures and long passages in which the first violin plucks the same note. Given the subtitle “Calvary,” and the few bars of powerful dissonance before arriving at a catharsis, one wished to know more about that score.
Therein lies one serious deficit for the evening. Although the full PDF program was handsome and useful, the printed handout was much too thin on information and organization. It would have helped to have composers’ dates, so that those of us who know the work of Samuel Coleridge Taylor were not befuddled by “Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson”; thank god for the immediacy of cell phone access in the minutes before the program began, to determine that Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004) actually was named after African-British composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor (1875–1912). And the skewing of three listings ran on title and composer of one piece with another, creating confusing partial citations. Lastly, the handout would have been more user friendly with the entire program and players on the front page, and texts included. Without them, concertgoers missed the words to powerful poems such as those in Adolphus Hailstork’s “Justice,” based on moving texts by Martin Luther King. One particularly spine-chilling moment comes in III, Decisions, in which the soprano sings, “Every man must decide if he will walk in the light of creative altruism…. Life’s most persistent question, what are you doing for others?” After the piano accompaniment stops, then the singer asks, “What are you doing?”.
The players all showed exemplary musicianship. Robinson, in her second year in Residence with Boston Lyric Opera, is entering the upcoming Met Regional Auditions competition in Atlanta.. Pianist Sarah Bob constitutes the force behind New Gallery concerts, combining music with other arts in her imaginative programming. Matthew Vera plays in the first violin section of Boston Philharmonic and the new Izarra Quartet. Second violinist Mina Lavcheva, a member of both the Portland and Rhode Island Symphonies, has played locally with the Handel and Haydn Society and Gil Rose’s two organizations, BMOP and Odyssey Opera. Violist Ashleigh Gordon, co-founder and Artistic/Executive Director of Castle of Our Skins, and cellist Lev Mamuya (who has written two reviews for this journal) both participate in the popular string orchestra, A Far Cry, as well as other local groups.
The audience included young daughters of Sarah Bob, one dressed in her purple party dress; a man from Brookline with his 14-year old daughter who had never been to the Athenæum; and two older men, one from Somerville, music-lovers who also had never been to the library. Athenæum director Leah Rosovsky was not able to attend because of the death a few days ago of her father, Henry Rosovsky. But there is a felicitous connection of her father to the motive behind this celebratory concert: Rosovsky, retired Dean of Harvard College, was responsible, albeit at the urging of students at the time, for setting up Harvard’s first Department of African-American Studies, later appointing Henry Louis Gates as its chairman. An Athenæum trustee, Creelea Pangaro, who did attend the concert, found it “wonderful… Their voices and strings woke the Long Room to glorious new life!” That was the Athenæum’s goal.