There were approximately 50 people in attendance in the sanctuary of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Raleigh on the evening of February 10 for a program of “Works by Black Composers” presented by members of the five-year-old, Boston-based Coleridge Taylor Ensemble, joined by soprano Louise Toppin of the ECU voice faculty. Sadly, only about a half-dozen of those attendees were black. On the other hand, it was refreshing that a respectable number of other folks were interested in the accomplishments of this segment of our cultural heritage. The quartet is not exclusively African-American, either, but the ratio is 50-50. At lest three members are or have been faculty members of Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, which has an impressive music program, and the guest violist for this performance, Paul Goldsberry of the NCS, has had ties to that school, too. The program was presented in Greenville the previous evening.

Cellist William Thomas and violinist John McLaughlin Williams, the two African-Americans, made extensive, informative and interesting comments–there were no program notes–about the composers and the works presented that greatly enhanced the listeners’ understanding and enjoyment.

Opening the recital was the recently rediscovered two-movement Quartet No. 3 in C, one of six long-missing Quartettos Concertans by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. This received its first NC performances during the CTSQ’s Tar Heel State visit. Bologne, born in Guadeloupe in 1739, but educated in Paris, was a bona fide musketeer, undefeated as long as he lived, as well as a composer. (After nearly losing his life in an earlier uprising in Haïti, he survived the French Revolution and died–with the eighteenth century–in 1799.) This was an attractive, delightful piece, rather Mozartean in some ways, with a significant part of the melody in the cello line, rather unusual for the period.

Toppin then gave a beautiful rendition of the complete original version of the spiritual “Calvary,” arranged for string quartet accompaniment, which prepared us for the “Five Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet” by Florence Price that followed. Price, who died in 1953, adhered to Dvorak’s advice to American composers (made during his visit in the late 19th century) to seek their inspiration in indigenous folk melodies. She composed variations on “Calvary,” “O my darling Clementine,” “Drink to me only,” “Mammy’s little baby loves shortening bread,” and “Swing low, sweet chariot” for this piece, which was quite interesting and used some unusual harmonic devices.

After intermission, Toppin sang from the composer’s manuscript score a delightful group of eight songs with quartet accompaniment by David Baker setting texts by African-American poets, four of them by Langston Hughes, with different shapes and textures. Baker, born in 1931, is a jazz musician and professor of jazz at Indiana University. Some of the songs–the first, “Night: 4 Song”; the third, “Kid Stuff” (text by Frank Horne); the fifth, “Gethsemane” (Anna Bontemps); the seventh “Now that he is safely Dead” (Carl Wendell Hines); and the last, “End” (Hughes)–were straightforward, but others held surprises. In the second, “Fragments,” with a Hughes text like the first, the quartet stopped playing and spoke along with Toppin in whisper voice. The fourth, “Poppy Flower” (with another Hughes text), was sung a cappella. In the sixth, the quartet joined Toppin to shout one word. Toppin was in top form and presented all the songs very well. The performance was a real treat, one I’d like to savor again. NCCU faculty cellist Timothy Holly is working on an instrumental piece by the same composer to be presented locally later this month. Based on the evidence of this composition, it should prove interesting.

The evening closed with “Danzas de Panama” by William Grant Still, one of his few works for small ensemble, inspired by Panamanian folk themes collected by Elizabeth Waldo. The four movements bear the names of dance melodies: “Tamborito,” “Mejorana,” “Punto,” and “Cumbia y Congo.” This is a lighter-spirited work, but charming–a fitting way to end the festivities. We often think of the orchestra or of the piano exclusively for this type of adaptation, but this music was particularly well suited to the string quartet, demonstrating Still’s fine craftsmanship. Like Price, he was following Dvorak’s advice for his inspiration, but he was more adventuresome in the execution, using (for example) imitations of drumming made by tapping in various spots on the sound chambers of the instruments. Curiously, both composers hailed from Little Rock, AK, and were born only seven years apart (in 1888 and 1895 respectively), but Still lived twenty-five years longer, until 1978.

This was a delightful recital, well planned and well played–although the instruments seemed not to want to stay in tune, perhaps due to the humidity in the air from the day’s rain–and full of interesting music and pleasant discoveries. Let’s get them back so they can show us some more!