‘Black Composer Showcase’ series Launched by The Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University

The Northwestern Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts . (Photo by Jim Prisching)

A fascinating new series of videos featuring performances of art songs and chamber music by Black composers has been launched by The Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University.

This three-part Black Composer Showcase series includes several performances by Bienen School voice and instrumental students, in addition to scholarly background information on the works and composers provided by faculty and student musicologists and guest presenters. The first video is available now in the Bienen School’s Davee Media Library.

Florence Price, University of Arkansas Libraries, Special Collections

This school-wide project was co-conceived by Bienen faculty members Karen Brunssen, co-chair of the Department of Music Performance and professor of voice and opera, and Drew Davies, chair of the Department of Music Studies and associate professor of musicology. The goals of the series are to broaden the repertoires performed and studied at the Bienen School, inspire collaboration among music studies and performance students, and educate the Bienen School and broader communities about composers of color and their important contributions to classical music. 

“I am proud of the Bienen School of Music students and faculty involved in this project for their dedication to showcasing these important composers,” said Toni-Marie Montgomery, dean of the Bienen School. “We must work as a community to incorporate more voices and contributions of diverse groups into our music curricula and performances — a goal I have pursued throughout my tenure as dean.”

Samuel Coleridge Taylor, courtesy Wikipedia

The Black Composer Showcase series is part of the Bienen School’s ongoing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) activities. Bienen faculty have been working independently and collaboratively in developing DEI initiatives for their studios and classrooms. Many instrumental studios are studying repertoire by composers from various heritages. All of the Bienen School’s 105 voice students committed to selecting and performing two songs by Black composers in the 2020-2021 academic year, with additional study of composers from diverse backgrounds planned in subsequent years.

To prepare for their performances, voice students benefited from a public Black Art Songs webinar hosted by the Bienen School of Music in April. Dean Montgomery moderated the event, which featured a presentation by Louise Toppin and Willis Patterson of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

“Music of African Americans is for everyone to sing,” said Toppin, who also contributes to the first video in the series. “It is important for all of us to engage with this music because it tells the narratives of America. Without considering these narratives, we are teaching and singing an incomplete story of America.”

Margaret Bonds, courtesy Wikipedia

“Chicago Connections,” the first video in the Bienen School’s Black Composer Showcase series, focuses on two female African American composers with ties to Chicago: Northwestern alumna Margaret Bonds ’33, ’34 MMus and her mentor Florence Price. Louise Toppin, professor of voice at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, provides historical background on these two groundbreaking artists between performances by Bienen voice and opera students. Watch the video here

Program

(00:39) “Hold Fast to Dreams” from Five Art Songs (music by Florence Price; text by Langston Hughes)
Sarah Zieba, mezzo-soprano

(05:09) “Song to the Dark Virgin” (music by Florence Price; text by Langston Hughes)
Nicholas Lin, tenor

(12:01) “Minstrel Man” from Three Dream Portraits (music by Margaret Bonds; text by Langston Hughes)
Miya Simpson Higashiyama, mezzo-soprano

(20:55) “Poème d’Automne” from Songs of the Seasons (music by Margaret Bonds; text by Langston Hughes)
Kasey Nahlovsky, baritone

(26:45) “Summer Storm” from Songs of the Seasons (music by Margaret Bonds; text by Langston Hughes)
Helaine Liebman, soprano

Laurann Gilley and Alan Darling, piano

William Grant , Photo: Carl Van Vechten

About the Black Composer Showcase Series

The three-part Black Composer Showcase series features performances by Bienen School voice and instrumental students, as well as scholarly background information on the works and composers provided by faculty and student musicologists and guest presenters. The goals of this series are to broaden the repertoires performed and studied at the Bienen School, inspire collaboration among music studies and performance students, and educate the Bienen School and broader communities about composers of color and their important contributions to classical music.

Photos are courtesy of the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University

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