African Heritage Symphonic Series, Vol. 2. Chicago Sinfonietta; Paul Freeman, conductor. (Cedille Records CDR 90000 061)
The world of classical music has a pretty decent record of color-blindness, but curious shortcomings are still easy to spot. One of them involves music by composers who happen to be black. Too often, their work is reserved for Black History Month or concerts honoring Martin Luther King Jr. It's absurd that such music is not more a part of the mainstream of programming with American orchestras.
Paul Freeman, founding music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, has devoted much of his time to correcting this oversight since at least the 1970s. Anyone curious to know what we have been missing in concert halls will get a good idea from Freeman's "African Heritage Symphonic Series" recordings for Cedille Records, one of the fine small labels making up for the steady cutback in classical products from the big-name companies.
Like last year's release, Vol. 2 contains vibrant accounts of substantive repertoire by a distinctive cross-section of black composers, not all of African-American descent, all but one still living. It adds up to a compelling collection.
Pulitzer Prize-winning George Walker is represented by his exquisite Lyric for Strings from 1941. Orchestras tired of dragging out Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings would do well to consider this score.
Although it does not aim for quite the cathartic release as Barber's well-worn music, Lyric reveals a similar affinity for rich, unapologetic romanticism in melody, harmony and gesture. The piece never sounds predictable or cliched. It's a gem.
Hale Smith's Ritual and Incantations from 1974 packs quite a punch. If the writing sometimes suggests the soundtrack to a horror film, the craftsmanship is always solid, the variety of expression considerable in this moody, evocative work. The percussion writing is particularly imaginative.
Ulysses Kay's Overture to Theater Set from 1968 makes a forceful curtain-raiser, with occasional moments for reflection and even a little suspense.
Panamanian-born Roque Cordero is represented by his Eight Miniatures for Small Orchestra from 1948. Most of the Latin-flavored movements are under two minutes, yet each covers a lot of interesting, vividly orchestrated ground.
Adolphus Hailstork is represented by the propulsive, jazzy An American Port of Call from 1985 and Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed from 1979. The latter, intended as a memorial to King, eschews anger or lamentation in favor of great eloquence. The music conveys not only a calm acceptance of loss, but, more importantly, an inner faith in the eventual triumph of King's philosophy.
Freeman conducts all of these compositions with obvious conviction and attention to detail, coaxing stylish, generally firm playing from the Sinfonietta.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Morgan State University Choir will join forces for an all-Adolphus Hailstork concert next week featuring 'Done Made My Vow' and 'I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes.' David Lockington will conduct.
The performance is at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center, Morgan State University. Tickets are $20 to $30. Call 410-481-7328.
Chiara Margarita Cozzolani: Vespro della Beata Vergine. Magnificat; Warren Stewart, conductor. (Musica Omnia MO 0103, three discs)
Within the confines of a Benedictine convent in Milan, some of the most tuneful, spirited, rapturous sacred music of the 17th century was composed for performance by the cloistered nuns. The composer was also a nun, Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, who served as abbess at one point during her long life.
History has not been sufficiently appreciative of Cozzolani. Music books have given her scant attention, and she has been ignored by most of those involved in the continuing revival of early music. Perhaps this superb release from the adventuresome Musica Omnia label will help change that.
It's no wonder that people, some from distant countries, were known to turn out in droves for services at the Santa Radegonda convent and a chance to hear the sisters sing Cozzolani's music. (It's also no wonder that a bishop, perhaps jealous of the attention they were getting, eventually tried to stamp out their musical activity.)
Cozzolani's flair not only for melody and harmonic progression, but also rhythmic vitality, comes through in the Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers). The work goes from one beautiful turn of phrase to another, conveying religious devotion with what sounds like nothing short of an inner radiance and joy.
That, at any rate, is the effect achieved in this historically informed, but never academic, recording by the vocal ensemble called Magnificat - eight women who blend smoothly, yet retain an effective level of individuality when appropriate.
Warren Stewart leads the group, along with three sensitive instrumentalists, in music-making that is as technically refined as it is eloquent, all captured in warm, atmospheric sound.
Stewart provides background on Cozzolani and her music on the third disc in this collection. This "Beyond the Notes" bonus is a valuable feature of many releases from Musica Omnia, a young company that has quickly established a high standard for repertoire - from Bach and Mendelssohn (Fanny and Felix) to John Harbison - and quality of performance and sound.