Local musicians aim to raise awareness about African-American composers
- January 21, 2011
There's a special kind of harmony that comes from sharing a piano bench. As LaDoris Cordell and Josephine "Jodi" Gandolfi play a duet arrangement of Betty Jackson King's "Spring Intermezzo" four hands, one piano they often breathe in time.
The piece is gentle, with some delicate dissonance sprinkled in, and Cordell's hands chase Gandolfi's down the keyboard. Their shoulders lean together amiably. At the end, they look at each other and smile. "I can hear her breathing," Cordell says.
While the piece, part of King's "Four Seasonal Sketches," was written for one person, Gandolfi has arranged it for a pair. This way, the longtime Menlo Park piano teacher gets to team up with her student and friend.
It's been a fruitful musical partnership. Cordell, a former Palo Alto City Council member and retired judge, has been studying piano with Gandolfi for six years. A few years ago, Gandolfi, Cordell and other students including Deanne Tucker began exploring music by African-American composers. They knew some spirituals and jazz, but were shocked to realize how few black composers they knew, especially of classical music.
Sitting in the theater at Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto, Cordell and King list examples. William Grant Still, a pioneering symphony composer. Betty Jackson King, who wrote and arranged spirituals and other vocal and instrumental music. Valerie Capers, a New York composer of cantatas, song cycles and pop and jazz songs. And these are just for starters.
"I had never heard of these composers as a black person growing up with a black piano teacher," Cordell says.
On Jan. 30, Cordell, Gandolfi and Tucker will present their third concert of music by African-American composers, together with several other musicians: soprano and East Palo Alto native Yolanda Rhodes, clarinetist Carol Somersille, violinist Susan C. Brown, and cellist Victoria Ehrlich. The 3 p.m. performance will be at the Eastside Prep theater, with all proceeds benefitting the school's music department.
"We're on a mission: to bring these talented composers to the world," Cordell says.
The program encompasses 11 composers and one world premiere. Composer Joshua McGhee, 24, who recently earned a bachelor's degree in music with a composition emphasis at California State University, East Bay, will premiere his work "Where Freedom Rings." It's a setting of his own text for soprano, piano, violin and cello.
McGhee has been writing melodies as long as he can remember. He started piano lessons late, in the ninth grade, but before then he had already become fascinated by "Fur Elise" and taught himself the piece by ear.
"I don't know. It just was kind of natural," the affable McGhee said in a recent phone interview. "By my senior year in high school, I had about 11 instruments checked out to me. I played every single one not well, but I played them. ... I would mess around with it, learn the fingering."
McGhee now writes orchestral pieces: sometimes "really artsy symphonic work," sometimes "music that's more like film scores." "Where Freedom Rings" is his first commissioned work. Gandolfi, Cordell and Rhodes met with him at school, told him about the concert and asked him to write a piece for it.
Inspiration came in part from "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and part from the concept of freedom.
"I started thinking about how there are so many people around the world who aren't free," McGhee said. "The text of the piece, the underlying theme, is about perseverance, overcoming some kind of struggle."
The text begins: "Come my mother / come my son / let us flee this brutal storm. / May the sun shine tomorrow / and nurture the strength they've seen / let us go to where freedom rings."
Back at the Eastside Prep theater, Gandolfi pulls out the music for "Where Freedom Rings" and plays some excerpts of it on the piano. Parts are hymn-like; parts are rhythmic and minimalist. She praises the piece's "richness," adding, "The harmonic vocabulary is quite sophisticated."
Cordell takes a solo turn at the piano, demonstrating another piece on the upcoming concert program. With emotion, her eyes half-closed, she sings and plays a musical tribute to Billie Holiday called "Billie's Song."
Valerie Capers wrote the piano piece, and Cordell put lyrics to it. "A song just for you / if only you knew / how much you touched our hearts ... " she sings in a low, smooth voice.
After Cordell wrote the words, Gandolfi sent them to Capers. In a thrilling moment for Cordell, she says: "Valerie loved it! She even asked permission to record it." She beams. "Of course."
The program also includes spirituals by Jacqueline B. Hairston and Hale Smith, the Betty Jackson King four-hand arrangements, and instrumental chamber music by William Grant Still: "Vignettes" for trio and the third movement of the Suite for Violin and Piano.
Still (1895-1978) is perhaps the best-known composer on the program. The Mississippi native is in the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, and is said to have been the first black composer to have a major orchestral work performed by a major United States orchestra (his Symphony No. 1, in 1931).
In 2009, when Gandolfi and her students performed their first concert of works by African-American composers, at the Palo Alto Art Center, Still's music was the centerpiece. Gandolfi ordered the music through the composer's daughter.
Then the group decided to further explore more works by black composers. "There was such a richness, such a wealth of literature," Gandolfi says. They performed another concert at Eastside Prep last year, to a packed house in the 200-seat theater.
Cordell smiles. "Jodi said, 'If we play it, they will come.'"