Learn more about each of the pieces that J’Nai Bridges will be performing in her upcoming July 7th program. The concert takes place at 7:00pm in the Spanish Courtyard of the Rosen House at Caramoor.
This blog post features the words of Garrett McQueen, a Minnesota-based bassoonist, digital and broadcast media producer, and writer working at the intersections of race, contemporary culture, and classical music. You can learn more about Garrett, his work, and his affiliations at www.garrettmcqueen.com.
You will be able to find this piece in the program book to be handed out during the July 7th concert.
If you’ve been able to follow the career of J’Nai Bridges, you already know that she’s a master of blending genres and bridging narratives toward the transformation of arts spaces as we know them. If this is your first time hearing J’Nai Bridges in concert, congratulations! You’re in for a life-changing experience that’s proven to inspire audiences across the country and around the globe. This program, featuring Bridges with pianist Bradley Moore, not only showcases the rich culture and history surrounding the European tradition of art song, but highlights the unique contributions of a few of America’s Black composers and their relationships with this timeless style of music.
When it comes to the American musical canon, there’s no ignoring the role that the church has played in its development and evolution over the generations, so starting this recital with The Lord’s Prayer as realized by composer Albert Hay Malotte is only appropriate. Like many musicians, Malotte’s journey began in church, where he was a choir boy at Philadelphia’s St. James Episcopal before pursuing a career as an organist. As the years went by, Malotte’s work as an organist took him to cities including Chicago and Paris, and he eventually settled in Los Angeles where he spent most of his career as a composer. Although his proximity to Hollywood laid the framework for his two Academy Award-winning movie scores, The Lord’s Prayer maintains its status as his most celebrated work, which was noted in his 1964 obituary as “the first one that achieved popularity.” Originally recorded and presented by baritone John Charles Thomas, The Lord’s Prayer has been performed and recorded by countless singers since its composition; Bridges’ take on this classic work shines a contemporary light on the piece that gives today’s audiences an opportunity to enjoy it just as well.
While composers like Albert Hay Malotte found fame by writing music for church, composer Maurice Ravel became one of history’s most celebrated composers by dedicating himself, completely, to more secular music. Born near the Spanish border in France in 1875, Ravel’s catalogue is filled with instrumental chamber and orchestral works that are still at the center of the western classical genre, including his two piano concertos, his 1922 arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and his often-performed Bolero. Additionally, Ravel completed two operas before he died in 1937, and a vast array of vocal compositions, including his 1903 song cycle, Shéhérazade. Inspired by the famous Middle Eastern story and the 1888 Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov composition of the same name, Shéhérazade offers a glimpse into Ravel’s affinity for far-away lands and the sounds that their people create. The dynamic nature of Shéhérazade has proven to be a challenge for many singers over the years, but Bridges’ masterful technique and emotional fortitude allow her to execute this sometimes overlooked gem in Ravel’s catalogue with absolute ease.
Historians and musicologists alike celebrate Maurice Ravel as one of western classical music’s greatest orchestrators, but is there a composer whose music earned them the title of one of western classical’s greatest songwriters? There are many opinions on this, but when asked the question many point to the life and work of Franz Schubert. He was born in late-18th century Austria and would fully embrace the musical aesthetics of his time as he grew and developed as a composer. Schubert’s “classical” approach was largely inspired by Mozart, who had died only a few years before his birth. You can also hear hints of other composers of the time in Schubert’s music, including Beethoven, who was alive for most of Schubert’s life. Schubert only lived to be 31, but managed to finish seven symphonies, several operas and chamber works, and over 600 works for solo voice. Among those vocal compositions is An die Musik, which was dedicated not to a singer, but to a star pianist of the day named Albert Sowinsky. This ode to music, as many refer to it today, showcases the power of the piano in not only a supportive role, but in a collaborative one; Moore executes this role beautifully with Bridges by paying special attention to phrasing and timing while nurturing the music-celebrating spirit of this composition that keeps artists coming back to it over and over again.
Franz Schubert’s timeless classics haven’t just entertained and inspired music lovers over the generations — his strong hand and soft touch has had a huge impact on other music creators, including Johannes Brahms. Alongside his very handsome instrumental catalogue is a lavish collection of songs, which includes a set of four written between 1857 – 68. From this set of four, Bridges will sing Nos. 2 and 1, titled Die Mainacht (May Night) and Von ewiger Liebe (Of Eternal Love). These two selections originally belonged to a larger, previously published collection of songs, but after hearing a performance of May Night and Of Eternal Love, a friend of Brahms urged him to publish them separately; he believed their beauty warranted their own, separate place in Brahms’ catalogue. May Night and Of Eternal Love were first heard as pieces for baritone voice, but Bridges’ mezzo-soprano is a perfect fit, and will show you why these works are still celebrated today.
With Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms standing firmly as western classical music’s “three B’s,” it could be easy to forget about some of the other “B” composers who changed the world of music. This is one of many reasons why the late Margaret Bonds deserves more attention in today’s performance spaces. Born in 1913, Bonds lived in a United States that hadn’t yet seen Black women like herself achieving greatness in western classical music (apart from her teacher, Florence Price), but that didn’t stop her. Over her career, Bonds’ strong determination and unprecedented approach to Negro Spirituals served as a catalyst to the survival of Black musical traditions. Additionally, this focus on Blackness paved the way for her collaborations with non-musicians, including Langston Hughes, whose text is utilized in her 1959 collection of songs titled Dream Portraits. The first in the set is subtitled, Minstrel Man, which Bridges brings to the stage beautifully as an ode to this once-overlooked Black woman composer who helped shape American music.
After Margaret Bonds’ death in 1972, Black music continued to thrive, with even more Black composers getting the training and experience necessary to have a solid footing in a growing and evolving musical ecosystem. Among those Black composers continuing this tradition today is Carlos Simon. Currently in his mid-30s, this Atlanta native is the Composer-in-Residence for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and pushes ahead with commissions and performances from musicians and ensembles across the country and around the globe. Among his works is his 2018 composition, Prayer, which begins with silvery notes from the piano leading into a vocal solo that tips a hat to the tradition of the spiritual while evoking a contemporary aesthetic that Bridges and Moore showcase like no other duo can.
Carlos Simon, of course, isn’t the only Black composer who’s continuing the tradition today. Composer Shawn Okpebholo, whose music has been described as “devastatingly beautiful,” is pushing forward in his own way with performances of his works reaching five continents, over forty states, almost every major U.S. city, and some of the nation’s most prestigious performance spaces. Okpebholo’s Oh Glory brings its title to life, with a vocal line and piano accompaniment that begs even audience members to meditate on the phrase. Oh Glory’s world premiere was given by Bridges at Chicago’s WFMT-FM in 2018, and subsequent performances continue to showcase her skillful ability to offer a mixture of traditional western technique and the spirit of church singing that this incredible piece of music requires from its performers.
All in all, the selections on this program represent only a sample of what these composers have published. The final selection, however, stands along as the only published work by the late John Carter. Unlike the other composers on this program, John Carter did not finish his degree in music, but instead enlisted in the U.S. Army. It was during his tour of duty that he won a piano competition that earned him broad recognition, and eventually made way for his Cantata, which received its Carnegie Hall Recital Hall performance just four months before Carter’s death in 1981. Filled with atonalities that resolve into beautiful harmonies, Carter’s Cantata is not for the amateur singer; Bridges’ professionally commanding take on each of its phrases leaves audiences filled with the joy and hope that concludes this brilliant work.
From the well-loved classics of the western European repertoire to the hidden gems of the American canon, this program offers a perfect glimpse into how the past speaks to the present and how music can help guide that journey of understanding. Moore and Bridges’ authoritative and powerful approach, coupled with the delicate sensitivity and understanding of the music, not only highlights the musical and spiritual bond of the past and present, but offers a perspective on what the future of art song and its relationship with an ever-evolving society can be.
— Garrett McQueen
Garrett McQueen is a Minnesota-based bassoonist, digital and broadcast media producer, and writer working at the intersections of race, contemporary culture, and classical music. Learn more about Garrett, his work, and his affiliations at www.garrettmcqueen.com.