Billed as “An Evening With Curtis Stewart”, Friday night’s DiMenna Center concert with the Experiential Orchestra (EXO) (co-presented by ChamberMusicNY) could have easily felt like a single-flavor affair. Curtis, the eponymous PUBLIQuartet violinist, composer, and Juilliard School of Music professor was featured through the entire 90-minute program save for two pieces (with physical programs in short supply, he and EXO Music Director James Blachly served as emcees, narrating throughout the show).
Yet through intelligent curation and a bit of ingenious staging, a clear but multifaceted thematic line emerged: combining performances and reimagining pieces by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Julia Perry, and Stewart himself with call-and-response, group singing, and even a mid-concert dialogue, pulling from community and scholarly knowledge offered by Stewart, Blachly, and guest lecturer Dr. Fredara Hadley, also of the Juilliard School.
Community support was on full display from the top of the show. Some of the earliest applause went to violinist, conductor, and scholar Roger Zahab, who has spent three decades working on researching, creating, and premiering a performance-ready edition of Perry’s sole violin concerto, the centerpiece of the program. While Zahab and the University of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra had offered the concerto’s world-first public reading in February 2022, the Perry concerto received its NYC premiere this night. But if it felt like a long-awaited unearthing, it was one that came on the heels of works that had been revived in years past.
Perhaps the single programmed piece that has begun to enter the repertoire of predominantly white institutions is Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s solo violin work Louisiana Blues Strut, but not as Stewart offered it. Starting not on stage, but stomping loudly from the back of DiMenna’s Cary Hall, he beat time for his own fiddle until he made it to his stand, and even past then. In turns, Stewart drew percussive attacks and spine-tingling dexterity of sound from the instrument. Finesse with timbral choice would be his calling card throughout the night.
The work that followed (EXO cellist and fellow PUBLIQuartet member Hamilton Berry’s re-arrangement of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s own arrangement of the Negro spiritual Deep River) proved that Stewart’s strolling violin was not a visual gimmick, but a powerful tool for sonority. His full-throated, foregrounded melismas were answered by the strings of EXO placed behind the audience. The back-and-forth proved alchemic: the sonorities of a vast European cathedral, or perhaps one of Harlem’s own great churches, was conjured, even as the double basses and cellos were called upon to strike their instruments on the backbeat like a choir might foot-stomp themselves.
Stewart himself invited the audience in for what would also be a recurring theme — singing themes and variations on Deep River and instructing the audience to sing it back. The pedagogies of African-American church music were introduced into the space, breaking down barriers between the very concept of performer and listener.
After speaking briefly on the concept of re-appropriation of old musical forms with racial associations (Perkinson channeling the antebellum “cakewalk” danced and played by enslaved African people to entertain white American and European masters for Louisiana Blues Strut a century later, and Coleridge-Taylor reaching across the Atlantic from his native England to set the typically-sung Deep River for violin and piano), Stewart migrated stage left to a makeshift DJ setup for the night’s sole work involving electronics, violin, and rap “City’s Son”.
Sampling the melody and harmonic changes of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Take The A Train, Stewart defied genre and offered perhaps the closest glimpse of his personal artistic beliefs. The one quibble was that a stereophonic approach would have been appreciated – in a multipurpose space like Cary Hall, the occasional word or two would get lost in the mix, and given the nature of the work, every bit of text was vital.
EXO’s strings continued to delight in the three movements of Perkinson’s Sinfonietta No. 1, a title that intimated its brevity but not its depth of character. Much was made of the contrapuntal labyrinth of the first movement, the cinematic middle movement, and the ferocity of the last, and its explosive last moments brimmed with youthful energy that the composer, 22 years old at the time, must have surely possessed.
Subsequently, Blanchy and Hadley took seats in front of the orchestra, winds and brass filing in behind their string-playing compatriots, for a short discussion led by Stewart on Julia Perry: a truly successful composer in her day, whose stroke at 47 did not dampen her desire to create but did present massive challenges to its fruition. As an unmarried Black woman in the 1970’s, Perry lacked a safety net or amanuensis a la Mozart, and despite contemporary recognition of her genius, much of her work has required decades of musicological research to return from obscurity.
Perry’s choral work Ye, who seek the truth, written in her late twenties, has been championed in recent years by Stewart’s PUBLIQuartet violin counterpart Jannina Norpoth in various arrangements. It was presented in perhaps its largest form yet – Norpoth’s string writing was naturally inventive, false harmonics and mixed textures abounding, but her ear for wind pairings was equally piquant, and harpist Dr. Ashley Jackson’s sparkling touch was a welcome addition.
If this early liturgical work implied a genteel flavor to her writing, the Violin Concerto was anything but. After a brief presentation (during which Stewart invited the audience to feel the difference between the two governing musical intervals in the piece, a major third and a major seventh, by singing it themselves), the soloist dove into the first of two lengthy cadenzas that bookended the work. A rhapsodic single-movement opus, the Perry also lent itself to film-music implications: in slow sections, she seemed to presage the deliberation of Arvo Part in ideal, if not in character, and in fast music, her penchant for replaying music in rapidly shifting key contexts gave the impression of a high-speed chase. With luck, this work will be heard in New York’s other halls for seasons to come.
After a well-deserved set of bows, Stewart and Blachly served an “encore” in the form of Louisiana Blues Strut reprised, augmented by doublings, interjections, and drum hits by EXO’s principal players. The violinist left the same way he came, taking a circle around the room until he went out the door and, like his listeners, into the world again.