“Underground Figures” music by Nkeiru Okoye, Julia Wolfe and Florence Price/ music review by Laurence Carr

I recently had the pleasure of attending a live concert, something missing from my cultural life over the past two years. The concert, titled “Underground Figures,” presented the works of three American women composers and was performed by the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. The evening more than filled my live music void and was one of the most uplifting musical experiences I’ve had in years.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The concert was presented at the Bardavon 1869 Opera House in Poughkeepsie, New York with the HVP, under the energetic, sensitive baton of Dr. Anne Lundy, a guest conductor from Houston. Dr. Lundy gave an insightful talk about the pieces before the program including a brief interview with composer, Nkeiru Okoye. This warm interchange set the tone for the evening’s works.

The program began with the audience standing for an orchestral rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem, a moving experience in itself. The first piece on the scheduled program was Julia Wolfe’s ethereal “Anthracite Fields: IV. Flowers,” the fourth of a five-movement work featuring the Capella Festiva and Vassar College singers and a small instrumental ensemble. It brings lyrical repetitions reminiscent of early Phillip Glass, but with a softer edge. It was mesmerizing to hear the words “flowers,” sometimes in single syllables, become a mantra that soon lost its literal meaning and became pure sound.

The second work was the centerpiece of the evening: Nkeiru Okoye’s inspiring “Songs of Harriet Tubman— 4 Arias” for vocalist and orchestra. These stand-alone but interwoven pieces trace the life of Harriet Tubman, a major figure in 19thcentury American history, who helped bring countless African Americans from the South to the North on the “Underground Railroad.” Each of the four arias centers around a turning point of Harriet Tubman’s life, where she gathered the strength to move on to the next part of her life’s work. Each of the arias creates its own musical language, dynamic and narrative with each aria building one upon the other, ascending both musically and emotionally. It’s a beautiful and deeply poignant song cycle that I encourage lovers of vocal music to listen to. The four arias are:

1. My Name is Araminta

2. My Name is Harriet Now

3. I am Harriet Tubman, Free Woman

4. I am Moses, Liberator

And a few words must be given over to the vocalist, soprano Ms. Kishna Fowler. (Actually, many more words could be said about Ms. Fowler, but my space here is limited.) Ms. Fowler is a force of nature and the brilliance of her interpretation of the four Harriet Tubman arias shines through moment after moment. It’s always exciting to be in the presence of a singer who has such command of her instrument, and in the “Harriet arias,” Ms. Fowler covered nearly every genre of American vocal music from blues and gospel to operatic and contemporary, moving from one to another with seamless ease and grace. It was equally exciting to watch and hear the collaboration between composer, Ms. Okoye, and vocal artist, Ms. Fowler. This hand and glove matching of two gifted musical artists brings an even greater level to the piece, something that the Bardavon audience understood with their standing ovation.  Brava! 

Photo by Tom Swinnen on Pexels.com

The evening ended with Florence Price’s (1887-1953) “Symphony No. 1 in E Minor.” I’ve been a fan of Florence Price’s music for several years, but this is the first time I’ve heard her work live. It was well worth the wait. Movement one, Allegro ma non troppo, is a powerful, swirling segment pushing the listener forward then pausing for several slower, connective bridges. The second movement, Largo maestoso, a slower hymn-like meditation features the brass and reeds creating plaintive themes with variations that build to the end. Juba Dance is a short, joyous, syncopated piece where the mind’s eye can see the choreography accompanying the lively music. In this movement is the delightful use of a slide whistle, certainly an underused orchestral instrument. The final movement is a rondo, reminiscent of American show tune and period musical scores, but a totally original Florence Price creation. This symphony, like much of Ms. Okoye’s “Songs of Harriet Tubman” covers a wide range of American music inspired by popular American folk and dance melodies and sacred song. This symphony was the first by an African American woman to be performed by a professional orchestra, the Chicago Symphony in 1933. Again, I encourage listeners to seek out the music of Florence Price. Her resurgence into the contemporary music scene adds a great deal, and she will take her rightful place in the musical canon.

Acknowledgement: Some of the information in this article was taken from the Bardavon program and from the “Conductor’s Point of View” by Dr. Anne Lundy.

The bringing together of these three composers continues to explore the diversity that is American instrumental and vocal music. It’s my hope that we can travel this road forward and see where it will lead.     


Reviewer Laurence Carr is the publisher of Lightwoodpress.com. He writes fiction, poetry, and CNF.

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