The violin, or its cousins in the many musical cultures of the world, is considered one of the most expressive instruments, closely tuned to the timbres and pulse of the human voice.
In Roots, his first CD with his instrument, Randall Mitsuo Goosby, 26, son of a Korean mother and a black father, highlights the music of black American composers, several pieces receiving their first recordings here. The album features two substantial contributions by non-black composers, George Gershwin and Antonín Dvorák, whose appreciation of the black soul has opened many concert hall doors to non-European idioms and performers.
When I say “his” instrument, I should be more specific. The violin is the instrument he masters, but the one on which he plays for this generous 76-minute CD is a Guarneri, one of the two big names in violin production, namely the “Sennhauser” instrument Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù built in 1735, on loan from the Stradivari Society of Chicago. Such is the confidence placed in the talents of this brilliant young man.
Goosby opens with Shelter Island, the only entry from a living composer, Xavier Dubois Foley (born 1994), renowned double bass player and composer. He plays bass in a duet with Goosby in what sounds like a blues marching band celebrating the present in music. The solo violinist then turns to musical figures of the past.
“Many of these African-American composers – still William Grant, Florence Price, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson -” says Goosby in the CD program booklet, “must have navigated this industry at a time when racism, prejudice and segregation was rife. Today, artists like me and other young artists of color appreciate more a sense of freedom and confidence in pursuing a life in classical music. Without these composers, artists and music, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today. This recording is a tribute to their lives and experiences, and their dedication to creating this art that we all love. “
Goosby also helped bring back to the fore the Franco-African composer Joseph Bologne, a contemporary of Mozart, whose violin concerto Goosby chose for his prestigious Hollywood Bowl debut last August.
Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004) has no family ties to the Anglo-African composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, also featured on the album. It’s just that Perkinson’s mother, of American descent, named him after the famous Black Englishman, and the musical muse followed the name appropriately. Perkinson Blue shapes for solo violin explores multiple ways of experiencing the blues in three movements, “Plain Blue / s”, “Just Blue / s” and “Jettin ‘Blue / s”. The first one sounds like Bartók is Black; the second is slow and enigmatic; and the third is a virtuoso hoe that opens its ears as one might hear during an experimental Appalachia concert, sounding ripped off like a spontaneous “improvisation”, which is of course not the case.
Two Jews created the suite of selections from Porgy and Bess, opera composer George Gershwin (1898-1937) and arranger, world-renowned violinist Jascha Heifetz. For most listeners, these will be the most familiar elements of the CD, with the later witty “Deep River”. Here, Goosby is joined for the first time by his expert piano accompanist, Zhu Wang, who will be his musical partner for the remainder of the CD. The songs presented are “Summertime” and “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing”, played without pause, then “It Ain’t Necessarily So” performed with a delightfully flashy technique, and finally “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”, in which we hear how badly Goosby can blackmail that old Guarneri.
William Grant Still (1895-1978), long considered the “dean of African-American composers”, writes his Suite for violin and piano. Even though this is not the first recording of this piece, it will surely be a revelation for a new generation of listeners; devoted spectators will surely scratch their heads in dismay that ever so interesting works like this are so rarely scheduled in the concert hall. It’s in three movements, each named after a specific sculpture by different artists who emerged during Harlem’s famous Renaissance after WWI. “African Dancer” contains audible orientalist touches in its grand opening statement, reminding us of the considerable, though often unrecognized, Arab influence on African-American music. In “Mother and Child” we get a soaring, almost orchestral melody that summons the lush lyricism of film music. And in “Kid”, we can imagine a young regular in the street smart, with all his endearing, mischievous, sly and daring gestures. A magnificent piece to rediscover!
Florence Price (1887-1953) is the only woman featured on the CD, whose gender and race both conspired to make her work almost completely ignored without a real champion during her lifetime. A first series of recordings of his complete symphonies is currently in preparation under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin. His three pieces for violin and piano appear on Roots are also early recordings, the two “fantasies” edited by John Michael Cooper presumably from manuscripts. What gems it is! The first is Worship, his long Italian personality seems to have been the inspiration for a popular sentimental song of his time, such as “The Lord’s Prayer”. Its double notes are reminiscent of the female duo from Léo Delibes’ opera Lakme. The Fancy N ° 1 is lively and of Slavic inspiration, a good example on this CD of the performer vanishing into the mood of each of his selections without asking for too much focus on himself. Her Fancy # 2 seems to come from a “spiritual” material; a listener almost knows the accompanying words, and indeed, I couldn’t help but think, “Has not my Lord delivered Daniel?” “In particular in the recording of Paul Robeson where he underlines the following sentence:” And why not all the men? “
The original Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is heard in an arrangement by the famous violinist of her time, Maud Powell, in “Deep River”, No. 10 of his 24 negro melodies. The aria itself is one of the most heartbreaking in the entire catalog, transformed here into an instrumental drama. Obviously, Goosby hasn’t handpicked a garland of brilliant shows to show off his talent for pyrotechnic astonishment. This may have to wait for someone to compose a violin concerto specially commissioned for him; it may already be written.
The CD ends with his tribute to Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904), his 1893 Sonatine op. 100, writes while running the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, which catered for both African-American women and students. Dvorák’s respect for the national character of music did not apply only to his native Czech identity at a time when his country was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. “The future music of this country,” he is quoted in the CD booklet, “must be based on what are called Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any school of serious and original composition to be developed in the United States…. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the land. They are American. “
The sound universe of this work in four movements, called “sonatina” rather than “sonata”, alleviating somewhat the expectations of the listener, is in accordance with the state of mind of his New world symphony with the original theme “Going Home” or the American String quartet in its typical African-American intonation. The lasting impression is one of optimism and joy. Its second movement has a slow, catchy melody and the last movement is a fusion of African American gestures with Central European and Roma folk gestures that is by no means heavy or pretentious.
How lucky we are to have this extraordinary talent with us. Magnificent horizons will open up for this young, carefree artist, whose aspirations, I am convinced, will not be limited to the world of classical music. This is his first public statement and it speaks for itself.