Program Notes

Music at the Museum:


Portrait of a Queen

April 28, 2022

Join us in tracing the evolution of Black people in America through the lens of one figurative Black woman who represents strength, courage, and selflessness in Carlos Simon’s moving piece, Portrait of a Queen. This program also features narration and voice performances by native New Orleanian Joel Dyson, powerful works by Margaret Bonds, Florence Price, and Jessie Montgomery, as well as LPO Creative Partner Courtney Bryan on piano for a work of her own.

LPO Musicians

Guest Artist

Joel Dyson

A native New Orleanian, classical singer, and local business owner (Beyond the Stage LLC), Joel Dyson is mesmerizing on stage and is a force off the stage. She began singing in her father’s church at just four years old. Her love for music and desire to perform led her to some of the top music educational institutions in New Orleans and abroad. During her adolescence, she attended Louis Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp under the tutelage of Germaine Bazzle, and New Orleans Center for Creative Arts under the coaching of Phylis Treigle. While in high school, she won many vocal competitions and attended highly vetted out-of-state summer intensives including Washington National Opera and Walnut Hill. After graduating, she went on to study formally at Eastman School of Music under the tutelage of Robert McIver. There, she won several awards and placed first in several competitions, performed leading operatic roles, and traveled alongside the President of Eastman and University of Rochester many times performing at private gala’s and dinners. She’s graced many prestigious stages including the likes of The Kennedy Center and Playwrights Horizon Off-Broadway. She is currently a student of Louisiana State University Shreveport to receive her Masters in  Business Administration with a specialization in marketing and a fellow at Women’s Leadership Academy of Loyola University’s Professional and Continuing Studies Cohort 4. Her company, Beyond The Stage LLC is a performance arts company offering private training to children ages 4 and up in beginner piano, theater, and voice; as well as various community programming highlighting the significance and importance of arts education. 

Courtney Bryan

Hailed as a “composer and pianist of panoramic interest” by The New York Times, Courtney Bryan has been named the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra’s (LPO) first Creative Partner. The news was announced by Carlos Miguel Prieto, Adelaide Wisdom Benjamin Music Director, and Principal Conductor. Bryan collaborated with the orchestra in the past including the premiere of her work Rejoice in 2019. She brings creative vitality and collaborative energy to the orchestra’s artistic and community programs. The three-year appointment that started this season extends through June 2023. Bryan joins an artistic leadership team consisting of Prieto and Principal Guest Conductor Thomas Wilkins, making the LPO the only major American orchestra whose artistic leadership positions are held exclusively by Black and Latinx artists. 

Equally important to her artistic role, Bryan will strengthen the impact of the LPO’s education and community programs. A new project includes work with the LPO’s Music for Life program to workshop the process of improvisation and composition with young members of our New Orleans community. The “Sounds Of,” program offers children at partner schools the opportunity to explore the music that surrounds their own lives and hone their creative voices, regardless of any prior musical experience. 

Bryan appeared as a pianist in collaboration with LPO musicians in the digital chamber music series “Suite Sundays” on November 8, 2020. The program features Bryan’s compositions Spirits, dedicated to victims of police brutality, and Elegy. In subsequent seasons, the LPO will perform additional music by Courtney Bryan and commission a large-scale multi-genre work to be premiered in the 2022-23 season and presented across Louisiana. 

“From the first time we performed Courtney Bryan’s music at the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, I knew she has a special voice that could touch audiences worldwide, but especially here in New Orleans, the city of her birth and musical training,” exclaimed Prieto. “Her music speaks to us with urgency and honesty, and her fluency across musical genres matches the eclecticism of the cultural traditions of this community. Her voice, her ideas, and her art will infuse the LPO with vitality and possibility.” 

“I am thrilled to serve as the first Creative Partner of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra,” shared Bryan. “Growing up in New Orleans, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra has inspired me from an early age, and I am enthusiastic about our upcoming musical, educational, and other creative ventures in the New Orleans community and beyond.”

“As a composer and performing musician, Courtney Bryan is the perfect artist to serve as the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra’s first Creative Partner,” says Hannah Yim, orchestra president, and associate concertmaster. “She inspires us to embrace music of all kinds and from all voices.”

About Courtney Bryan

Courtney Bryan is “a pianist and composer of panoramic interests” (New York Times). Her music is in conversation with various musical genres, including jazz and other types of experimental music, as well as traditional gospel, spirituals, and hymns. Bryan has academic degrees from Oberlin Conservatory (BM), Rutgers University (MM), and Columbia University (DMA) with advisor George Lewis, and completed postdoctoral studies in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University. Bryan is currently the Albert and Linda Mintz Professor of Music at Newcomb College, Tulane University. She served as the Mary Carr Patton Composer-in-Residence with the Jacksonville Symphony, 2018-20. Her work has been presented in a wide range of venues, and she has two recordings, Quest for Freedom and This Little Light of Mine. Bryan was the 2018 music recipient of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, a 2019 Bard College Freehand Fellow, and was recently a 2019-20 recipient of the Samuel Barber Rome Prize in Music Composition and a 2020 United States Artists Fellow. She has recently begun a new role as Creative Partner with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.

Jesse Montgomery (b. 1981) Strum

  • Composed for string orchestra
  • LPO Premiere of this work is tonight.

Strum is the culminating result of several versions of a string quintet I wrote in 2006. It was originally written for the Providence String Quartet and guests of Community MusicWorks Players, then arranged for string quartet in 2008 with several small revisions. In 2012 the piece underwent its final revision with a rewrite of both the introduction and the ending for the Catalyst Quartet in a performance celebrating the 15th annual Sphinx Competition. The string orchestra arrangement represents the 2012 final version.

Originally conceived for the formation of a cello quintet, the voicing is often spread wide over the ensemble, giving the music an expansive quality of sound. Within Strum, I utilized texture motives, layers of rhythmic or harmonic ostinati that string together to form a bed of sound for melodies to weave in and out. The strumming pizzicato serves as a texture motive and the primary driving rhythmic underpinning of the piece. Drawing on American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement, the piece has a kind of narrative that begins with fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration

Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) – The Negro Speaks of Rivers

  • Arr. by Courtney Bryan
  • Composed for piano and voice (arranged for string orchestra, piano, voice)
  • LPO Premiere of this work is tonight. 

The Negro Speaks of Rivers 

–Langston Hughes

I’ve known rivers: 

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than

the flow of human blood in human veins. 

My soul has grown deep like the rivers. 

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. 

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. 

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. 

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln

went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy 

bosom turn all golden in the sunset. 

I’ve known rivers: 

Ancient, dusky rivers. 

My soul has grown deep like the rivers

_______

Margaret Allison Bonds was born on March 3, 1913, in the city of Chicago. Her parents were both well-established figures in the black community and provided her with a nurturing environment in which she could develop her musical talents. Her mother, Estella Bonds, was especially influential on her musical upbringing: when Bonds was old enough, she would accompany her mother at the piano on Sunday mornings at Berean Baptist Church. Her mother’s house quickly became known as a gathering place for prominent black artists passing through the South Side of Chicago, including composer Florence Price, who moved in with the family during the 1920s. Bonds’s compositional talents evidenced themselves early. She composed her first song, “The Marquette Road Blues,” at age five. Bonds went on to study composition with William L. Dawson (b. 1899) and Florence Price (1888-1953), while attending Parker High School, in Chicago. During high school, Bonds joined the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) and became a charter member of the Junior Music Association, organized in the mid-1920s. 

In 1929, Bonds entered Northwestern University where she was the recipient of a Rosenwald Fellowship, receiving her B.M. in 1933, and her MM. in 1934. It was during this period that she was first introduced to the words of Langston Hughes. Years later, towards the end of her life, she recalled, “It was in this prejudiced university, this terribly prejudiced place…I was looking in the basement of the Evanston Public Library where they had the poetry. I came in contact with this wonderful poem, ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers,’ and I’m sure it helped my feelings of security. Because in that poem [Langston Hughes] tells how great the black man is. And if I had any misgivings, which I would have to have – here you are in a setup where the restaurants won’t serve you and you’re going to college, you’re sacrificing, trying to get through school – and I know that poem helped save me.” This began a long association between Ms. Bonds and the poetry of Langston Hughes. Many of her most well-known compositions are settings of Langston Hughes’ texts. Among those compositions are: Three Dream Portraits, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, and The Ballad of the Brown King, a cantata for mixed chorus and orchestra.

Immediately following her Northwestern studies, Bonds maintained an active career as a performer, composer, and teacher. On June 15, 1933, she performed John Alden Carpenter’s Concertino with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Her debut marked the first time that an African-American pianist was a soloist with the world-renowned ensemble. One year later, she performed Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in D Minor with the Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago on a concert that was broadcast by CBS. 

Courtney Bryan (born 1982) Jewel/Garment/Flame (2021)

  • Written for piano and voice
  • LPO premiere of this work is tonight. 

The performance this evening is a vocal and piano duo arrangement of Jewel / Garment / Flame, originally written for Tiona Nekkia McClodden’s film, Be Alarmed: The Black Americana Epic, Movement III – The Triple Deities (2021). Throughout the score are references to themes from “Songs to the Dark Virgin” by Florence Price (1941) and inspiration from the text of this song, written by Langston Hughes (1926). Noted within the score are quotations of various Orisha chants and selected references to themes from McClodden’s film. The score features piano techniques inspired by Stanley Cowell among tributes to multiple genres of Black American music. This arrangement features improvisation by Joel Dyson and Courtney Bryan

  • Courtney Bryan

Florence Price (1887-1953) – Song to the Dark Virgin

  • Arr. by Courtney Bryan
  • Composed for piano and voice (arr. for string orchestra, piano, voice)
  • LPO Premiere of this work is tonight. 

Songs to the Dark Virgin

Langston Hughes – 1901-1967

Would That I were a jewel,
A shattered jewel,
That all my shining brilliants
Might fall at thy feet,
Thou dark one.

Would That I were a garment,
A shimmering, silken garment,
That all my folds
Might wrap about thy body,
Absorb thy body,
Hold and hide thy body,
Thou dark one.

Would That I were a flame,
But one sharp, leaping flame
To annihilate thy body,
Thou dark one.

_______

Born: April 9, 1887 – Little Rock, Arkansas

Died: June 3, 1953 – Chicago, Illinois

Florence Beatrice (Smith) Price was born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas, and died in 1953 in Chicago. Price became the first black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra when Music Director Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played the world premiere of her Symphony No. 1 in E minor on June 15, 1933, on one of four concerts presented at The Auditorium Theatre from June 14 through June 17 during Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition. The historic June 15th concert entitled “The Negro in Music” also included works by Harry T. Burleigh, Roland Hayes, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and John Alden Carpenter performed by Margaret A. Bonds, pianist and tenor Roland Hayes with the orchestra. 

Although this premiere brought instant recognition and fame to Price, success as a composer was not to be hers. She would “continue to wage an uphill battle – a battle much larger than any war that pure talent and musical skill could win. Price received her education at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and later established a career in Chicago as an organist and teacher. 

Between 1934 and 1936 she composed sixty-seven art songs, many of which remain unpublished. Vocal music is the third biggest genre of Price’s works. The vocal works include art songs, spiritual arrangements, examples of popular vocal music, and choral music. She started writing vocal music around 1910 when she had her son, Tommy. Price set Julia Johnson Davis’ poem to music, creating a loving song called “To My Little Son.” Tommy died, however, while very young. This art song appears to be one of Price’s early vocal works. Price’s writing became more developed and mature around the 1930s. She started writing more music, including symphonies, chamber music, and vocal works. Singers like Marian Anderson, Abbie Mitchell, Roland Hayes, and Harry T. Burleigh performed her vocal music regularly. 

Marian Anderson began singing Price’s arrangement of the spiritual My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord regularly on her concerts which always concluded with Negro SpiritualsShe then performed Price’s original setting of the Langston Hughes poem cycle Songs to a Dark Virgin which a Chicago Daily News reviewer called “one of the greatest immediate successes ever won by an American song.” The Hughes song cycle was published in 1941 and other leading black vocalists, among them Roland Hayes and later Leontyne Price, began to sing Price’s vocal music. Among her admirers was composer John Alden Carpenter (whose Concertino for Piano and Orchestra had been performed by Margaret Bonds on the 1933 history-making Century of Progress Exposition concert) who sponsored her for membership in the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Performers (ASCAP).

Price continued to compose throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, penning two concertos for violin and orchestra, two additional symphonies, one of which, Symphony No. 2, has apparently been lost. She gained recognition from as far away as England where conductor Sir John Barbirolli commissioned her to compose a suite for string instruments which had its premiere with the famed Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. She continued to arrange spirituals for solo voice and composed pieces for organ that were performed by organists in the many black churches of Chicago. 

Carlos Simon (b. 1986) – Portrait of a Queen

  • for string orchestra, percussion, and narrator
  • Performance length: approximately 16 minutes
  • LPO last performed this work on November 18, 2021 

Composed in 2017 on commission by the American Composers Orchestra, Carlos Simon dedicates this work to his mother and grandmother who “have wholeheartedly displayed the portrait of a queen by their unselfish and loving character.” 

Portrait of a Queen follows the figurative story of a woman who begins her journey in this work as a leader in Africa, to her enslavement on an American plantation and then to living under Jim Crow laws, and then finally as a matriarch found in many American churches today.

The composer says this about his inspiration for the work: “Women have always played vital roles in African-American communities.  I have known women to have strong but warm, caring temperaments. She is elegant and prideful. She carries herself with distinction and class. Her guidance is given with both tender love and fitness.  She is the backbone and cornerstone of her community She gives wise instruction to those of all ages; especially the younger generations. She teaches the young girls how to be women and the boys how to treat a woman. Her character does not change with the ages, but it is passed on from generation to generation. With every struggle and change presented, she is there providing support and direction for her community.”

The work, divided into four movements, is performed attacca (without pause) so the seamless journey of our heroine transitions from one chapter of her story to the next. Musically the landscape shifts around us as we move from one portion of the story to the next. The “prologue” section is derived from a Ghanian song Mo mmra ma yengoro (Come let us play) which has the entire orchestra turn into a West African drum ensemble. 

A Crown Forgotten refers to the spiritual Oh, Freedom. Glissandi in the orchestra are meant to convey the cries of captured slaves against the swell of the sea.

Jim Crow uses reference to the gospel song Don’t You Let Nobody Turn You Around which was used as a protest song during Civil Rights demonstrations. The final movement uses the melody from Great is Thy Faithfulness, a favorite hymn of the composer’s mother.

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