Throughout February 2021, the Oberlin College and Conservatory honored Black History Month. A series of events underscored Black contributions to classical music and highlighted the distinguished work of often overlooked Black composers.
On Sunday afternoon, February 28, the faculty concert featured the works by William Grant Still, Jefferey Mumford and Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint Georges performed by violinists Francesca de Pasquale and David Bowlin, cellist Darrett Adkins, pianist James Howsmon, and harpsichordist Mark Edwards. The concert concluded the series, “A Celebration of Black Artistry,” and was live streamed on Oberlin Stage Left, the Conservatory’s virtual programming platform.
The concert opened with a playful tune from Still’s Suite for Violin and Piano, performed by DePasquale and Howsmon. The duo’s seamless coordination in their effortless flight through the notes expressed the urgency in the images of three sculptures that inspired the composer. Richmond Barthe’s African Dance, Sargent Johnson’s Mother and Child, and Augusta Savage’s Gamin were represented with a number of different dance tempos, all with a bluesy twist to the melody. The second movement in particular was played with sentiment and passion, depicting the expansive scenery of the Great Plains with its blue skies and sheep clouds, as if you are looking out onto infinite hopes and dreams.
Adkins performed Mumford’s solo cello piece, amid fleeting pockets of billowing radiance. The former Oberlin Professor of Composition filled the piece with mesmerizing harmonic ambiguity that compelled listeners to contemplate the unpredictability of mother nature. The piece uses open harmonics as drones in combination with a surreal melody. At times Adkins had to slam his bow to catch the low double stops, resulting in a harsh and unstable string change to reach the high notes. This trembling madness perpetuated throughout the piece, leaving no room for moments of softness and peace. The unpredictable was predictable.
Bowlin and Edwards concluded the afternoon with Bologne de Saint-Georges’ Sonata in g, No. 3. Their incredible partnership was highlighted by clean and pristine technique. Bowlin effortlessly zoomed through the highly technical sections, while Edwards, although a sensitive player, sometimes fell behind during the sixteenth-note solo passages. Playing in the classical style with minimal vibrato, Bowlin achieved expressive texture and color through the altered speed and pressure of the bow.
The concert showcased the individual character and diverse styles of the composers as well as the talents of the Oberlin faculty. Although it was a phenomenal concert with world-renowned performers and first-class musicianship, the Conservatory missed the opportunity to involve a racially diverse ensemble of musicians. A flier picturing the all-white performers suggested there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to addressing systematic racism and inequality in the world of music and the arts.