Northwestern University: Bienen School of Music launches ‘Black Composer Showcase’ series

The Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University has launched a new series of videos featuring performances of art songs and chamber music by Black composers.

The three-part Black Composer Showcase series includes several performances by Bienen School voice and instrumental students, as well as scholarly background information on the works and composers provided by faculty and student musicologists and guest presenters. The first video is available now in the Bienen School’s Davee Media Library.

This school-wide project was co-conceived by Bienen faculty members Karen Brunssen, co-chair of the Department of Music Performance and professor of voice and opera, and Drew Davies, chair of the Department of Music Studies and associate professor of musicology. The goals of the series are to broaden the repertoires performed and studied at the Bienen School, inspire collaboration among music studies and performance students, and educate the Bienen School and broader communities about composers of color and their important contributions to classical music.

“I am proud of the Bienen School of Music students and faculty involved in this project for their dedication to showcasing these important composers,” said Toni-Marie Montgomery, dean of the Bienen School. “We must work as a community to incorporate more voices and contributions of diverse groups into our music curricula and performances — a goal I have pursued throughout my tenure as dean.”

The Black Composer Showcase series is part of the Bienen School’s ongoing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) activities. Bienen faculty have been working independently and collaboratively in developing DEI initiatives for their studios and classrooms. Many instrumental studios are studying repertoire by composers from various heritages. All of the Bienen School’s 105 voice students committed to selecting and performing two songs by Black composers in the 2020-2021 academic year, with additional study of composers from diverse backgrounds planned in subsequent years.

To prepare for their performances, voice students benefited from a public Black Art Songs webinar hosted by the Bienen School of Music in April. Dean Montgomery moderated the event, which featured a presentation by Louise Toppin and Willis Patterson of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

“Music of African Americans is for everyone to sing,” said Toppin, who also contributes to the first video in the series. “It is important for all of us to engage with this music because it tells the narratives of America. Without considering these narratives, we are teaching and singing an incomplete story of America.”

Black Composer Showcase Series
The first video, “Chicago Connections,” focuses on two female African American composers with ties to Chicago: Northwestern alumna Margaret Bonds (’33, ’34 MMus) and her mentor Florence Price. Featured performances include Bonds’s “Minstrel Man” from “Three Dream Portraits,””Summer Storm” and “Poème d’Automne” from “Songs of the Seasons” and Price’s “Hold Fast to Dreams” from “Five Art Songs”and“Song to the Dark Virgin.”

“Poets of the Harlem Renaissance,” the second video in the series, features musical works based on the poems of Langston Hughes and other poets associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Performances include Cecil Cohen’s “Death of an Old Seaman,” Robert Lee Owens’s “Girl” from“Heart on the Wall,” Howard Swanson’s “A Death Song,” Florence Price’s “The Glory of the Day Was in Her Face” and William Grant Still’s “Grief.” Faculty contributors include Drew Davies and Ivy Wilson, associate professor of English at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

The final video in the series, “Chamber Music Highlights,” includes selections performed by Bienen instrumental students: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet, Jonathan Bailey Holland’s “Mobius,”Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s “Lamentations” and William Grant Still’s Suite for Violin and Piano. Speakers include musicologist and recent alumna Amanda Stein (’21 PhD) and current doctoral composition student Ben Zucker. Performers Olivia Hamilton, a master’s clarinet student, and Nicholas Abrahams, a Bienen-Weinberg dual-degree violin student, also contribute to the video commentary.