Friday, November 23, 2018

Rachel Barton Pine turns her lavish, expert attention to black American composers

As she informs the listener in her program notes to "Blues Dialogues," Rachel Barton Pine is a Chicagoan whose interest in the city's musical roots go way back, including a fervent affinity for the blues that she's long cultivated in addition to her classical training and achieved artistry.

Another perspective: Rachel Barton Pine displays her classical/blues chops.
In "Blues Dialogues: Music by Black Composers" (Cedille Records), she provides an extensive overview of works, some of which she has helped bring to light, for both violin alone and with piano accompaniment.

It's not easy to give a thorough survey of the rewards to be had on this generously proportioned CD. Starting with Indianapolis' own David N. Baker, Pine looks back to the godfather of African-American classical music, William Grant Still, and up to Daniel Bernard Roumain, a composer in his 40s whose "Filter"  brings to the acoustic violin some of the borderline noise, flash and slash of Jimi Hendrix's guitar.

What's amazing is that none of the performances seems to have a once-over-lightly dutifulness about it. Pine shows as much technical and emotional investment in getting these scores right and making them her own as she had done with J.S. Bach and Antonio Vivaldi. Here, the assisting artist in pieces requiring the piano is Matthew Hagle.

The endless adaptability of the blues form is well recognized in various types of American vernacular music. It may come as a surprise that composed music — awkwardly fitting under the rubric "classical" —  can also accommodate the blues when sensitively treated. That's why Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson's "Blue/s Forms" for solo violin shoots to the top of this CD's repertoire for me. Also vying for first place: The well-regarded 20th-century composer Noel Da Costa is represented by a suite, recorded here for the first time, that makes more abstract use of African-American idioms: "A Set of Dances for Solo Violin."

Another unaccompanied suite that grips and holds the attention is Dolores White's "Blues Dialogues." The use of the violin's infinite ability to slide and decorate a line is thoroughly exploited in all of these blues-centered pieces. For a concise encapsulation of one aspect of the blues tradition, it would be hard to find a piece more smile-inducing than Errollyn Wallen's "Woogie Boogie."

But just after it comes Billy Childs' "Incident on Larpenteur Avenue," a searing personal response — program music for an atrocity: the shooting of the lawfully armed motorist Philando Castile by a suburban Minnesota policeman in a 2016 traffic stop. The shock of the incident has been absorbed into a musical fabric that is thoroughly convincing in artistic terms. Such a piece seems the best kind of confirmation that the larger world can be transmuted into high-level art by a skilled composer and such an insightful performer as this violinist.


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