Review: The ASO unearths the majestic work of Black composer Julia Perry

Guest pianist Michelle Cann performed a piece by Rachmaninoff. (Photos by Rand Lines)

Credit: Rand Lines

Credit: Rand Lines

Guest pianist Michelle Cann performed a piece by Rachmaninoff. (Photos by Rand Lines)

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

Saturday night in Symphony Hall, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra centered its concert around Black women in music and introduced a new name into the repertoire: Julia Perry.

At the top of the show, ASO Executive Director Jennifer Barlament described the theme of the evening and invited six women in the audience, people she called “local educators and trailblazers in music,” to stand -- from Joyce Johnson, professor emerita and organist at Spelman College, a job she’s held since 1955, to Krissi Davis, the orchestra director at Midtown High School and a recent Atlanta Public Schools Teacher of the Year winner. They’re part of a broad pool of talent and accomplishment.

The first music of the evening was by a Black woman composer with an Atlanta connection. Julia Perry was born in Kentucky in 1924, studied at Westminster Choir College in New Jersey and New York’s Juilliard School, won two Guggenheim Fellowships, and went to Europe to learn from Italian modernist Luigi Dallapiccolo and renowned harmony teacher Nadia Boulanger.

Pianist Michelle Cann’s encore was a boogie-woogie take on Rachmaninoff that energized the crowd at Symphony Hall.

Credit: Rand Lines

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Credit: Rand Lines

A few of Perry’s works were published, given multiple performances and later recorded, including a Stabat Mater (1951), a Requiem based on Vivaldi (1959) and an avant-garde exploration of a single chord written for ten percussionists, harp and keyboards and titled “Homunculus C.F.” (1960).

A mid-century modernist in spirit, and with a savvy ear for the sound of the blues and spirituals, she wrote symphonies (with subtitles like “Integration” and “Soul”) as well as concertos, chamber music and operas. Her “Short Piece for Orchestra,” composed in 1952 when she was living in Italy, made the rounds on a European tour by the New York Philharmonic. (She made several different arrangements of this piece, and they’re available on YouTube.) In the late ‘60s, she taught at Florida A&M and gave lectures at what’s now the Atlanta University Center.

A composer from any background, approaching their centennial, would be riding high with such a résumé.

Yet I’m sure next to no one in Saturday’s audience, or even on stage, had heard the name Julia Perry before. Just a few of her works were published, and most of her œuvre was left uncatalogued at the time of her death, aged 55, in 1979.

The ASO performance of Perry’s six-minute “Short Piece for Large Orchestra” revealed a bright, exuberant composition, at turns dissonant and lyrical and syncopated, brimming with ideas and energy. This music ought to be picked up by orchestras all over and then -- a bit like the recent “rediscovery” of Florence Price -- Julia Perry’s music will find its proper place in the repertoire.

Michelle Cann, who teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music, made her ASO debut in 2022, introducing Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement. This weekend, she was invited back for traditional fare: Rachmaninoff’s brawny Piano Concerto No. 2. Her reading was solid, often thrilling. The composer was a big man with very large hands, yet Cann, using a lot of forearm pressure, powered through the 10-finger chords and dazzling runs up and down the keyboard with aplomb.

Guest conductor David Danzmayr, music director of the Oregon Symphony, led the ASO in mostly compatible accompaniment -- at its best when individual musicians partnered with Cann in lovely duets, or when the orchestra had the lush singing melodies and Cann played the atmospheric accompaniment.

Cann’s encore was one more brilliant surprise of the evening: jazz pianist and singer Hazel Scott’s 1940 boogie-woogie arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s famous Prelude in C-Sharp minor, a delight. The audience loved Cann’s Rachmaninoff concerto; they screamed in delirium for her encore.

Another work from 1952, after intermission, closed the program. Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7, one of his final completed scores, has a turbulent history from a time when the composer was under vague but lethal threats from Soviet leadership for writing “formalist” music deemed antithetical to Soviet values, whatever that meant. Infrequently performed, it’s my favorite of the Prokofiev symphonies, with a powerful emotional range and loaded with lucid, devastating tension. The ASO has played Prokofiev 7 just once, back in 1984.

Conductor Danzmayr’s 2022 ASO debut, as a last-minute podium replacement, was unfocused and loud. He acquitted himself better on Saturday, although his rapport with the ASO musicians still seems mostly hollow. The performance was clean but, other than setting tempos, there wasn’t much depth to his interpretation of the Prokofiev, and key moments passed by without insight.

He took the melancholy, aching opening way too fast, as if it were triumphant and heroic; instead, it came off as a blur with little need for reflection. In the opening movement there’s a memorable, lyrical theme, at once expansive and roiling and heart-breaking, and it returns a half-hour later, in the final minutes of the symphony. Danzmayr didn’t seem to get the architecture of the piece, so the theme’s return carried no importance, no emotional weight. One has to wonder what Danzmayr will conduct on his next ASO visit.

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Pierre Ruhe was the founding executive director and editor of ArtsATL. He’s been a critic and cultural reporter for the Washington Post, London’s Financial Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was director of artistic planning for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He is publications director of Early Music America.


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