Julia Perry Recording
Music by Julia Perry, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, and Curtis Stewart
Including the World Premiere Recording of Julia Perry’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
About the Project
Following our 2021 Grammy® Award, Experiential Orchestra announces our next recording project, with a target release date of March 2024: Experiential Orchestra has been granted exclusive permission to create the world premiere recording of Julia Perry’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1963-68, rev. 1977), with three-time Grammy® nominee Curtis Stewart as soloist and Grammy®-winning Experiential Orchestra Music Director James Blachly as conductor. Surrounding the concerto are three other works by Julia Perry, all world premiere recordings, and two defining works by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson; music by Curtis Stewart himself completes the disc. Grammy®-winning producer Blanton Alspaugh and Soundmirror will again produce and provide sound engineering, with a release date planned for March 2024 on the Bright Shiny Things label.
The recording traces two common paths by excellent Black classical musicians in the 20th century: towards Europe (in the case of Julia Perry) and towards jazz and popular music (in the case of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson). Curtis Stewart’s artistry is being recognized internationally for forging a unique path of creativity, bridging the divide between classical and improvised music, with narrative and hip hop uniquely intertwined with classical virtuosity.
This recording aims to dramatically change the visibility and reputation of two extraordinary African American composers, bringing these works to a far greater prominence internationally, and to play a role in more frequent performances of their music throughout the world.
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Julia Perry’s early career was filled with accomplishments and accolades. She spent two summers at the Berkshire Music Center, conducted and sang her own compositions throughout Europe, studied with Luigi Dallapiccola in Italy, and with Nadia Boulanger, won the Prix Fountainebleu and two Guggenheim Fellowships, and her Short Piece for Orchestra was performed by the New York Philharmonic in 1965. But tragically, many of her roughly 100 compositions remain unknown, and she died financially destitute and in poor health, with virtually no interest in her music either in America or abroad.
Listen to her Prelude for Piano, arranged for strings by Roger Zahab, in a live performance by EXO from October, 2021.
Complementing Perry's musical language are two works by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Known as “Perky," Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson was said to have had a musical talent rivaled only by Leonard Bernstein. He played jazz piano with Max Roach, studied conducting at Berkshire Music Center, and was a prolific and accomplished composer. While he composed roughly 30 works in a classical idiom, the vast majority of his compositions were for film and television.
Julia Perry was born in March 1924; this recording is planned to be released on the centenary of her birth.
Why focus on the Perry Violin Concerto?
Perry composed more than 100 works, but more than half are lost. Of the remaining, only a dozen are published (Blachly is involved in a consortium to create publications of her other currently unpublished works, including all 12 symphonies). Her Violin Concerto was composed over five years, between 1963-68, but revised just months before her death in 1977; EXO, Curtis Stewart, and Blachly gave the world premiere of that revised version in December 2022. The concerto is completely unknown, and is, in Blachly’s words, a “masterpiece, that I believe should enter the core repertoire.” Experiential Orchestra’s Grammy® and Curtis Stewart’s three-time Grammy® nominations and his growing reputation ensures that the recording will be given strong international consideration.
EXO Music Director James Blachly says “The Julia Perry Violin Concerto is a vitally important work for our understanding of American classical music – it deserves to be a staple in concert halls around the world. Like all of Perry’s music, it has extraordinary compositional integrity, but it is also a compelling and rewarding piece for performers and audience alike, and I predict a steady rise in interest in not only this masterpiece, but the rest of her remarkable catalogue.”
Curtis Stewart says, “The music of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson and Julia Perry is near and dear to me. The first time I heard of Perkinson was through a mentor, Ashley Horne, who knew "Perky" personally. We both ended up playing his solo work Louisiana Blues Strut on Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage back to back in the program. He would tell me stories about his friend and share anecdotes and attitudes about music making. Julia Perry has occupied a mysterious space in my musical world for a while. For years, Jannina Norpoth from our ensemble PUBLIQuartet has been bringing works of hers, but we have been grappling with the quirks of her publishing (or lack thereof) and unable to perform much of what she originally wrote. These composers both capture the abstract, soulful, individualistic and grounded spirit of late 20th century American composition.”
Funding for the project comes from individuals (perhaps you!) and from a generous grant from Women's Philharmonic Advocacy and from the Sphinx Organization.
Lionel Foster in conversation with James Blachly
Conductor James Blachly sat down with writer and Experiential Orchestra supporter Lionel Foster to talk about EXO’s Julia Perry recording project. Lionel Foster is a writer based in Washington, D.C., and founder of the Baldwin Prize. More information about his work can be found here.
Their conversation has been condensed for length and clarity.
Lionel Foster: This recording is part of a larger project you have been part of to bring attention to overlooked greats in contemporary classical music. What do we gain from this discovery, or in some cases rediscovery, of artists?
James Blachly: Classical music may seem like a small part of the cultural landscape, but because we’re talking about a cultural institution that is a marker of something broader, a recording like this can have a significant impact in the long term and more immediately.
With this project we hope to contribute to a fuller understanding of our history as a country. I can say that personally, learning about the excellence of these composers and specifically these pieces of music changes my understanding of who I am as a classical musician in America. Who you talk about determines who you feel the story is about; that changes who you feel represents us as a country.
LF: Tell us about Julia Perry.
JB: I believe that Julia Perry is one of the most inspiring of American composers, but she is almost completely unknown, even within the orchestral field. In her lifetime she had great success early on, including a premiere with the New York Philharmonic, tours in Europe, and studying with the foremost composition teachers, but by the end of her life she had virtually no performances of her work. No one was performing her music. And yet—she continued to compose despite terrible health issues and being completely ignored by the entire classical music establishment. When I consider what she endured and overcame, I think her story is heroic—to continue to create in the face of financial and health crises, to continue to compose even when there was no evidence people would listen. She never faltered in her conviction of the importance and integrity of her own work. And I think by performing and advocating for her music we are helping to right a wrong in our cultural life.
LF: How did you find out about Perry?
JB: As part of the African Diaspora Music Project, I was doing a survey of all composers of African descent that I could learn about and putting their work in as comprehensive a list as we could compile.The Project is directed by an extraordinary scholar, composer, and singer, Dr. Louise Toppin, and has been a multi-year process. We ended up with a database of 4,000 songs and 1,400 works for orchestra, which of course continues to grow as we learn more, and as composers continue to create.
Perry herself composed more than 100 pieces, but the majority of them are lost. Some are in archives, and some are just gone. Approximately 50 pieces are extant. Only about a dozen were published in her lifetime. We are a part of a group working to publish all of the rest of her music, and it has been a long, slow, but rewarding undertaking.
LF: Who was Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson?
JB: Perkinson was New York City-based. He went to the Manhattan School of Music and played jazz piano with Max Roach. He and Perry both went to the Berkshire Music Center, which we now know as Tanglewood. Perkinson was also a very fine conductor. He was a co-founder and one of the conductors of the first racially integrated orchestra in the US, The Symphony of the New World, which was founded in 1965. Just consider that for a second: 1965 is the first time we had an integrated orchestra in this country. He was an extraordinary musician. It was said that the only person who rivaled his musical talent was Leonard Bernstein. In addition to his classical works, he found great success composing for film and television. He also played classical piano. I think we should be celebrating his brilliance as much as any American composer.
The recording includes works by both composers because they really reflect each other. We are using the title American Counterpoint, because the music of these two composers is in dialogue. Both composers also incorporate the musical technique of counterpoint in their work—two independent voices that create a new whole, a new musical entity. And each represents a different solution to exclusion from the American mainstream. One solution is to focus on work in Europe, like Perry (although she also spent a significant portion of her career back in the states). The other is to achieve success in film, television, popular music, jazz. That’s what Perkinson did (although he also dedicated a significant portion of his career to classical music). That itself is a counterpoint. There’s a main line, a main melody, and then both composers had to create their own musical line in the world.
LF: Why was Perkinson’s work ignored during his lifetime?
JB: I can only conjecture, but here are a few guesses. While he leaves a body of work of maybe 30 published pieces, not all of his music is written for classical ensembles—much of it is for film and TV. And traditionally, people who wrote for popular genres were not taken as seriously by the classical music mainstream. So there is that marginalization. But as to why his music was not programmed by white ensembles of the time, we can all guess that race played an outsized part of that, but there’s also a sense of musical taste—and his music does not fit neatly into the paradigms that were established at the time. The fact is that curation—the choice of what will be performed and by whom—is highly contested, and those who make those decisions do so with broad implications and impact. A chance conversation at a party about whether someone should be programmed next season can have tremendous impact on somebody’s career long term. An opportunity denied early on in someone’s career can create a wealth gap that widens over time. And the fact is that one of the reasons he wrote for TV and film was that there were so few opportunities for him in classical music because of his race.What would have happened if Perkinson had had a significant number of classical commissions early in his career? When I look at the quality of his music, it is absolutely extraordinary, and I just wish that he had composed even more for orchestra. The musical integrity and compositional significance is absolutely astonishing. I am in awe of his ability and accomplishment.
LF: In 2021, you and Experiential Orchestra won a Grammy for the world-premiere recording of Ethel Smyth’s choral symphony The Prison. Smyth’s reputation has been greatly enhanced since then. Do you hope for a similar outcome here?
JB: It has been a great experience seeing how much that recording did for Smyth’s reputation and that her star is now in the ascendant. Of course, we are not the only reason that her music is being performed more frequently now, but our recording certainly gave a new level of credibility to those in a position to take her music seriously and program it. I think it’s fair to say that it shifted her reputation in a considerable way. When we thought about what to do next, we felt we had a unique opportunity to shed that spotlight on something else. We asked ourselves, “Who else deserves that level of appreciation and consideration by the musical establishment?” We believe these two musical composers are more than deserving of that kind of attention. Because we won a Grammy, we think people may take the time to listen to this recording; and if they listen to this recording, I am confident that the music will speak for itself.
LF: Tell us about the music on the recording.
JB: There are compositions by these two composers, and a further counterpoint is music by Curtis Stewart. There are four works by Julia Perry. All of them will be world-premiere recordings. There’s her 23-minute-long violin concerto; a piece for piano she wrote at age 22; and her Symphony No. 1 for Violas and Basses, two instruments that don’t normally get the spotlight. Then we have a choral piece highlighting her training as a choral singer and composer called “Ye Who Seek the Truth,” arranged for strings by Jannina Norpoth.
The opener of the CD is a piece by Perkinson for solo violin called “Louisiana Blues Strut (A Cakewalk).” It was written for Sanford Allen, the first African American musician in the New York Philharmonic. On this recording it will be performed by Curtis Stewart, and he’s made it one of his signature pieces. This will be his first studio recording of "Strut."
In addition to that opening work, another Perkinson piece is his Sinfonietta No. 1 for String Orchestra. It was written when he was 22 years old, and is a tour de force compositionally and for the orchestra. The piece has a lot of Baroque-informed counterpoint, and incorporates both jazz harmonies and really exciting rhythmic writing. It is a virtuosic composition.
Then we close with a piece by Curtis that weaves together all of the other compositions—a counterpoint in itself.
LF: As an African American man, I can suddenly envision Perry and Perkinson writing massive works at a young age. That’s not an image I’ve ever had when thinking about or listening to classical music.They look like some of the brilliant people I went to school with. They look like me. That image is so clear: there’s a cinematic quality to Perry and Perkinson’s stories that pulls me in.
JB: Yes! Why isn’t there a movie about these composers? When I conduct their music, they truly inspire me with their brilliance, personality, and strength. I cannot imagine what it took to endure the way they did, to create and succeed as they did in this field despite the lack of support and recognition.
Julia Perry applied three times to Tanglewood. She was accepted three times, but couldn’t attend in 1948 because of “financial difficulties,” and there was no scholarship for her. In other words, she couldn’t attend the premier training program at an elite cultural institution because she couldn’t afford it. Doesn’t that make you want to do something? We have to make sure we can offer opportunities to those who inspire us with their brilliance.
In a broad sense, I think it changes how we understand who we are when we celebrate these two composers. I know I feel differently about our field when I know that Perry and Perkinson are not just included at the margins, but are at the center of who we celebrate.
… James Blachly, conducting New York’s Experiential Chorus and Orchestra, catches the music’s sweeping, sonorous energy. Sarah Brailey’s soprano radiates assurance, and Dashon Burton is outstanding as the pensive Prisoner.READ FULL ARTICLE