Holley is a graduate of Baldwin-Wallace College and the University of Michigan. He performed with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra for twelve years and was also affiliated with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra during that time. He has been an assistant professor of music at North Carolina Central University since 1996. He has been a member of the Mallarmé Chamber Players and has performed with the Ciompi Quartet of Duke University and the North Carolina Symphony.
His opening selection was "Abraham’s Sons: In Memoriam Trayvon Martin" composed in 2013 by African-American composer James Lee III (b. 1975). The piece opens in the lower register of the cello with what can only be described as an awful cry of pain and sadness after which the instrument explores this theme from double-stop lower register to top. After a trill and a pizzicato passage, the cello seems to cry out in protest, gaining in intensity. A shattering climax leads to calmer and quieter music as though some acceptance were at work in the process. This is music that speaks its own language. I only hope I have not read too much into it. Holley’s performance was intense, technically impressive and artistically relevant.
Next on the program was Four Pieces for Solo Cello by Tania León. Born 1943 in Havana, Cuba, she traces in her heritage the blood of Frenchmen, Spaniards, Chinese, Africans, and Cubans. She is highly regarded and has earned awards as a composer, conductor and organizer. In 2000, she was named the Tow Distinguished Professor at the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College, where she has taught since 1985.
The first of the four pieces, marked “Allegro,” opens with the bow attacking the strings, establishing a chromatic theme that dominates the movement. With impressive gymnastic demands, interspersed with lyrical asides, it moved to a comfortable ending. The second piece, “Lento Doloroso, sempre cantabile” (“to my father”) began and ended with a whistling harmonic on the cello – a reference to the love of the composer’s father in playing a flute. With skips of wide intervals, it communicated a lyrical sense of affection, playfulness and strength.
The third piece was labeled, simply, “Montuno.” The word means, literally, “Come from the mountain,” and is used in a variety of references in Cuban music. This piece was a rhythmic tour de force with foot stomping and various other percussive techniques and pizzicato playing. It was a delight – especially the playful ending. The finale of the four pieces, marked “Vivo,” was just that – full of life and energy with considerable technical challenges pushing the soloist to the limits. Holley was up to the challenge, at times seeming to almost become one with his instrument.
The final piece before intermission was Shapeshifter: The Angry Bluesman composed in 2012 by Trevor Weston, composer and chairman of the music department at Drew University. While the title of this piece could mislead one to interpret the music simplistically, it was anything but simple. Equipped with a jaunty derby, Holley launched into a distorted blues riff, a semiquaver slash with foot stomping, bridge slapping, demanding pizzicato. How could the blues get lost in such anger?
After a congenial intermission, Holley performed Adolphus Hailstork’s 2012 Sonata for Cello. Hailstork was educated at Howard University, Manhattan School of Music and Michigan State University where he earned his Ph.D. in composition. He also studied composition with such luminaries as Vittorio Giannini, David Diamond, and Nadia Boulanger. He is currently a professor of music and composer-in-residence at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. The Sonata was composed for Holley.
The first movement, Allegro moderato, develops slowly out of itself, with occasional side episodes. It gradually becomes more rhythmical and ends with a gentle cadence. The Poco adagio middle movement is the longest and most developed of the three movements with some episodes that are quite lyrical allowing the cello to sing out with all its warm and enticing appeal. An episode (perhaps the trio?) sounds almost like a gigue. Then there are changes in mood, from intense extraversion to intimate and personal. The third movement Allegro is dance-like. One hears snippets of children’s songs, simple and playful, drawing us in to a place where children play together with no regard for the differences between them.
Holley is a significant musician and must be appreciated for that. Every piece on this recital program pointed to musical excellence, technical precision and personal commitment. His doctoral thesis and perhaps his life calling was/is to bring attention to the music composed by African-Americans for cello. Stereotypes provide the soil in which prejudice grows, and when they are challenged with a broader perspective of those we think are different from us, the prejudices cannot be maintained. Music speaks to us within the deep soul, and when we are willing to hear what it is saying and follow where it is pointing, we become richer in spirit and more human. Thanks to people who write and perform music that makes it so.
Performances by Holley of several of these pieces may be found on YouTube.