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Classical 101

New disc features first recordings of works by African American composers

Kellen Gray conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra
James Montgomery
courtesy of the artist
Conductor Kellen Gray leads the Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Conductor Kellen Gray has built a career on challenging assumptions.

While a conducting fellow with the Chicago Sinfonietta, Gray discovered the wealth of orchestral music by African American composers. Inspired by that repertoire, he challenged the assumption that, to be successful, he had to base his career on performing only European masterworks.

Now an associate artist with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Gray continues to challenge that assumption, seeking out and performing hidden gems by African American composers. He has led the orchestra in two acclaimed recordings of orchestral masterworks by composers of color. His 2022 African American Voices featured the revered Glasgow-based orchestra in well-known works by William Dawson, William Grant Still and George Walker.

Gray’s most recent recording, African American Voices II (Linn Records), ups the ante. This disc contains the first commercial recordings of works by three major twentieth-century composers – Margaret Bonds’ Montgomery Variations, Ulysses Kay’s Concerto for Orchestra and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Worship: A Concert Overture.

Bonds, Kay and Perkinson were all inspired in different ways by the African American folk and spiritual traditions, among other common musical influences. As he mentions in our video interview, Gray highlights that diversity of approach and sound in African American Voices II.

“I think often when someone thinks about African American composers, they immediately think about a certain aesthetic similarity, or assume that there’s an aesthetic similarity,” Gray said. “Granted, a lot of composers of African descent that are from America use folk music as the basis for their classical music aesthetic – mostly spirituals, pre-jazz-era dance forms and other folk music forms from the early twentieth century – but not everyone did. And even when they do, not everyone applied it in the same way. I really wanted to set out in the second album [African American Voices II] to show the array of voices that can exist and perhaps break some assumptions that could be made.”

Today Gray remains equal parts conductor and sleuth, unearthing little-known works by African American composers, tracking down non-commercial recordings of them from rehearsals and performances, hunting down and learning their scores and eventually performing and recording them.

“These particular three works that came to the album were sort of a confluence,” Gray said. “Either I thought they were wonderful works, and the music was readily available, or I thought they were the best introductory works to these particular composers.”

headshot of conductor Kellen Gray on the cover of African American Voices II
Linn Records
courtesy of the artist

During our interview, Gray shares how he came to find the works on African American Voices II. He also discusses each work’s historical and musical contexts. Bonds’ Montgomery Variations (1964) emerged during the Civil Rights era, while Kay composed his defiantly tuneful Concerto for Orchestra (1948) at a time when most American composers had abandoned melody. And Gray unveils the inner workings of the pieces on the disc, explaining how each came to speak to shared African American musical traditions while also embodying its composer’s unique voice.

“It’s funny to think of (these works) as good companions, because I actually chose them to show the diverse array of voices amongst African American composers,” Gray said. “I actually wanted to display the variety of voices that there are out there.”

And while African American Voices II is the first major recording of these important works by three African American composers with powerful musical voices, it is more than that. The recording’s collection of distinctive musical voices stands to bring nuance to our understanding of the landscape of African American music.

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.