IN: Reviews

Festival Celebrates Julia Perry’s 100th

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If you are asking “who is Julia Perry?” I am sure you are not alone. But today, March 25th, would have been the 100th birthday of this composer whose music is now poised on both rediscovery and discovery. Musically speaking, we are in an exciting era. Historic composers who had been relegated to the dustbin of history ― for arbitrary reasons, including those of race and sex ― are now being carefully recovered and reexamined. Florence Price is a now-famous case. Margaret Bonds is also in progress. And Julia Perry’s turn is just beginning!

Julia Perry (1924-1979) has a dramatic story of recognized brilliance and success, which then took a tragic slide into obscurity. Financial instability compounded by illnesses meant that she was unable to sustain herself in the artistic scene. After she had entered the forefront of the musical landscape, for a range of reasons she slid off that notable highpoint. So, with her Short Piece for Orchestra both performed and recorded by the New York Philharmonic, and her Stabat Mater for Contralto and Strings recorded, and performed widely ― to mention just two of the larger of her successful works ― one might think that Perry had it made as a composer. She had degrees from Westminster Choir College and numerous awards and fellowships in both the U.S. and Europe. Much remains to be learned, but health problems began in the later 1960s, and in the 1970s she suffered a series of strokes; she died at age 55.

Perry at Tanglewood (Irene Britton Smith photo)

A small group of dedicated musicians who have been working to rediscover Perry, piece together information about her, and bring to light her unknown music, organized a recent Julia Perry Festival in New York City. But a fundamental legal issue exists: with no known surviving family, who owns her musical rights? That question needed to be addressed before the many unpublished works could be performed. Akron, OH, was Perry’s home for much of her life, and Christopher Wilkins, Music Director of the Akron Symphony has led the project to tackle these issues. Also spearheading the Festival were Soprano Louise Toppin, and conductor James Blachly of the Experiential Orchestra.

The Festival launched on Wed. March 13th with a concert in the Greenwich Village nightclub, Le Poisson Rouge, which lent a celebratory atmosphere, and opportunities to raise a glass in tribute to Perry. After a few words of introduction from James Blachly, the concert opened with the Perry’s Prelude for Piano (of 1946, which she later revised, a common practice for her) and here in an arrangement for string quartet, performed by PUBLIQuartet (violinist Rubén Rengel substituted for Jannina Norpoth). In its solemn chordal structure it served as invocation, a meditation. Repeating the short work, the musicians gave the gentle phrases a space for graceful, improvised interpolations.

Perry’s choral work Ye, Who Seek The Truth (arranged for strings) sounded lush and warm in its harmonies and lilting rhythms. The elegant British musicologist and pianist Samantha Ege is preparing to record Perry’s Piano Concerto in Two Uninterrupted Speeds, but on this night she dove into a sparkling, jagged jewel, a solo titled simply Miniature. Then a string quartet version of this taut work cast that jewel in a different light. Soprano Laquita Mitchell joined Ege in two moving songs, the mournful By the Sea (1950), and How Beautiful are the Feet (1954), an evocative, emotional prayer. Mitchell is a compelling performer.

Curtis Stewart is not only a brilliant violinist, but also a composer and performer on electronics and spoken word. With the other members of PUBLIQuartet he performed his own We Who Seek, a reflection on Perry’s Ye Who Seek, with peace as the goal. This multi-media work pushed boundaries but also offered layered insights on Perry’s hymn.

The evening ended with pensive lyricism as Ege gave a subdued account of the Prelude in its piano version. It served to remind us that although the concert had ended, the festival had just begun.

To be continued …. Two more concerts of the festival, and a whole day of presentations and discussion!

And a reminder that the Akron Symphony’s Julia Perry Project page provides rich insights into her life as well as links to recordings of her music, including some world premieres.

Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is President of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy and The Rebecca Clarke Society, Inc.  Her website is here.

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