Arts Blog

Celebrate Black History Month with All Classical Portland

All Classical Portland is proud to share a diverse offering of music we love all year round. During Black History Month in February, we are shining a special spotlight on the extraordinary contributions to classical music by Black composers and performing artists. In this post, you’ll get to know some of the composers who will be featured in All Classical Portland’s programming this month and throughout the year.

William Levi Dawson
Image courtesy of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

William Levi Dawson (1899-1990)

Composer and choral conductor William Levi Dawson was one of the most significant African American composers of the 20th century. While his formal studies primarily centered on classical music, he also immersed himself in jazz after moving to one of the country’s largest hubs for the genre – Chicago. Dawson played bass with renowned jazz performers such as Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. Another integral element of Dawson’s music, African American folksong, was carried through from childhood. His arrangements of spirituals are as highly regarded as his original compositions.

Learn more about William Levi Dawson in our past feature on the composer.

Undine Smith Moore
Image courtesy of Indiana University Libraries Archives of African American Music and Culture Collections, No. SC 102

Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989)

Undine Smith Moore was an American composer and educator who primarily focused on writing choral and sacred works. Spirituals and Southern hymnody heavily influenced her compositional style. Among her many accomplishments was co-founding and co-directing Virginia State University’s Black Music Research Center, which brought leading Black musicians and lecturers to the campus.

Moore’s oratorio on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Scenes from the Life of a Martyr, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

George Walker
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

George Walker (1922-2018)

George Walker was nothing short of a trailblazer and achieved considerable acclaim as a composer, concert pianist, and educator during his lifetime. His broad range of works, from large orchestral pieces to intimate songs for voice and piano, have been performed by virtually every major orchestra in the U.S. as well as abroad. His music was influenced by such classical heavy hitters as Debussy and Stravinsky, as well as Black musical idioms such as jazz, blues, and spirituals.

In 1996, Walker became the first African American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music for his piece, Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra

Emahoy Guèbrou
Image courtesy of Pan African Music

Emahoy Guèbrou (b. 1923)

Emahoy Guèbrou (born Yewubdar Guèbrou) is an Ethiopian composer and nun whose music has been highly influenced by her religious vocation. Throughout her career, Emahoy has used her music to benefit underprivileged children. The Emahoy Tsege Mariam Music Foundation, which provides music education to disadvantaged children, is financially supported by proceeds from Emahoy’s compositional copyrights. Emahoy fled to an Ethiopian Orthodox monastery in Jerusalem in 1984 to escape religious persecution in her home country. She still resides there today.

One of Emahoy’s works that will be featured in All Classical Portland’s programming is a piece for solo piano called Homesickness. The recording was performed by Sophie Lippert, All Classical Portland’s 2022 International Arts Correspondent.

David N. Baker
Image courtesy of Encyclopedia of Indianapolis

David N. Baker (1931-2016)

American composer and jazz cellist David Baker’s colossal oeuvre of 2,000 works ranges from jazz compositions to symphonic works and film scores. Baker credits Charles Ives and Béla Bartók as significant compositional influences. In addition to his many musical scores, Baker is remembered as a pioneer in using the cello in jazz ensembles and collaborated with artists such as Quincy Jones and George Russell. His work as a jazz pedagogue resulted in 70 books on jazz improvisation, composition, arrangement, and other related topics.

In 1968, Baker founded the Jazz Studies department at Indiana University, the first of its kind in the U.S.

Samuel Akpabot
Image courtesy of Discogs

Samuel Akpabot (1932-2000)

Samuel Akpabot was a Nigerian composer and ethnomusicologist whose music blended Nigerian folk elements and Western classical style. Interestingly, Akpabot’s music was almost exclusively written for orchestra. His studies brought him to various institutions around the world, such as the Royal College of Music in London, the University of Ife in Nigeria, the University of Chicago, and Michigan State. During his tenure in the United States, Akpabot became known as a revered scholar of West African indigenous music.

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson
Image courtesy of Cedille Records

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004)

The music of American composer and conductor Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson captures a rich blend of traditional Western techniques and American popular styles, such as blues and spirituals. In addition to his wide range of compositions, Perkinson is known for co-founding the Symphony of the New World in 1965, the first racially integrated orchestra in the U.S. Did you know that Coleridge Taylor Perkinson was named after British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor?

One of the pieces by Perkinson that will be played on air this month is Sonata for Flute and Piano, performed by Adam Eccleston and Monica Ohuchi. The piece was recently recorded and released on AMPLIFY, the inaugural album from All Classical Portland’s Recording Inclusivity Initiative (RII).

Adolphus Hailstork
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941)

Over the past several decades, Adolphus Hailstork has been commissioned by major ensembles across the U.S. to write pieces for orchestra, chamber ensemble, and opera. His music is described in the New Grove Dictionary of Music as “postmodern and pluralistic,” meaning Hailstork integrates a wide variety of contemporary compositional techniques, including references to Black musical idioms.

Notable honors for the composer include the Ernest Block award for choral composition in 1971, and in 1992, he was named Cultural Laureate of Virginia.

Justinian Tamusuza
Image courtesy of Crossing Borders Music

Justinian Tamusuza (b. 1951)

Ugandan composer and educator Justinian Tamusuza has been recognized as one of the leading contemporary African composers of our time. Tamusuza’s Afro-European music blends Western classical and Ugandan traditional styles and techniques. To the new listener, his works might resemble American minimalism in their use of polyrhythms while still evoking the spirit of traditional African music. As an educator, Tamusuza has taught at Makerere University in Uganda and Northwestern University. He’s known for inspiring his students to follow his lead in drawing on their own rich cultural heritage when creating new compositions.

Photo by Rachel Hadiashar, courtesy of the composer’s website

Damien Geter

Damien Geter is a multifaceted artist known for his work as a composer, actor, and bass-baritone. Additionally, he currently serves as Interim Music Director & Artistic Advisor for Portland Opera and Artistic Advisor for Resonance Ensemble. Geter has established a unique position as a leading voice both in his role as a performer and in creating meaningful classical works. As a singer, Geter has performed with the Metropolitan Opera, Seattle Opera, and Portland Opera, among many others. In his writing, Geter focuses on issues around social justice by infusing classical music with styles from the Black diaspora. His body of work currently includes pieces for orchestra, chamber ensemble, and stage.

Mark your calendars! On Thursday, February 16, 2023, at 7:00 PM PT, All Classical Portland will air an encore broadcast of Damien Geter’s powerful An African American Requiem. The world premiere performance was simulcast by All Classical Portland and WQXR in May 2022 from the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and cohosted by Suzanne Nance and Terrance McKnight.

For further reading, we recommend checking out some of All Classical Portland’s previous posts highlighting Black composers:

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