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Classical 101

Recording showcases Black American composers

The members of the Catalyst Quartet standing in front of a modernistic background
publicity photo
courtesy of the Catalyst Quartet
The Catalyst Quartet

Works by three notable African American composers are featured on the most recent volume in a groundbreaking recording series entirely devoted to works by Black composers.

The third volume of the Catalyst Quartet’s Uncovered recording series (Azica Records) showcases shimmering performances of string quartets by composers Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, William Grant Still and Pulitzer Prize winner George Walker.

“The quality of these particular three quartets is just really special,” said Paul Laraia, violist with the Catalyst Quartet. “These are very, very well-crafted quartets.”

The Uncovered series came about in the course of the Catalyst Quartet’s work as a featured ensemble with the Sphinx Organization, whose mission is to increase representation of Black and Latinx artists in classical music. The quartet sought out repertoire by composers with backgrounds as diverse as those of the young musicians they were mentoring. Their search uncovered a wealth of substantial musical works they didn’t know.

“Over the years, we were just discovering all of these incredible pieces and asking ourselves, why aren’t these more widely performed?” Laraia said.

Laraia and his colleagues realized that the works they had found needed to be performed and recorded more at a high level for musicians and concert presenters to be aware of them and commit to programming them.

“The mission was to record these as quickly but as thoroughly and with the highest integrity that we could, so that people had access to all of them in one place,” Laraia said.

Uncovered, Vol. 3 is the first recording in the series to feature the Catalyst Quartet without guest artists. It’s also the first to juxtapose works by multiple composers on the same disc.

The first volume in theUncovered series was released in 2021 and is entirely devoted to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s chamber works with string quartet. Pianist Stewart Goodyear and clarinet Anthony McGill perform as guest artists in his Piano Quintet and Clarinet Quintet, respectively.

Released in 2022, the two-disc UncoveredVol. 2 showcases Florence B. Price’s works for string quartet alone and, with guest pianist Michelle Cann, her piano quintets.

The composers represented on Uncovered, Vol. 3 wrote fewer works for string quartet than either Coleridge-Taylor or Price did. All three quartets on the recording were composed within 20 years of each other. Each quartet is a model of its composer’s unique style – William Grant Still’s tuneful Lyric Quartette, George Walker’s harmonically adventuresome First String Quartet, the eclectic synthesis of spiritual, jazz and classical idioms in Perkinson’s First String Quartet, “Calvary.”

“Not only are there certain similarities thematically and in time and also the fact that they all are important American composers, but they also happen to contrast each other nicely, as well,” Laraia said, so you get a bit of variety on this disc.”

And you get to hear musical works that for a long time took a back seat to other quartets in the repertoire.

“They were all written by American composers, who really haven’t been given enough respect,” Laraia said. “Their importance to the American vernacular hasn’t been recognized nearly enough.”

Hambrick, Jennifer M.

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.