Program Notes


Joseph Bologne
Jessie Montgomery
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor 
James P. Johnson
Jean-Philippe Rameau
Duke Ellington


The fascinating life story of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-99) reads like something out of a PBS costume drama or even Hamilton: He was born on an island in the Caribbean (Guadeloupe) to a French planter and his slave; whisked to France at the age of eight where he became a fencing master and charmed Parisian society; and enjoyed a career as a noted violinist, conductor, and composer of orchestral music and operas. His later life was spent leading the Légion des Américains et du Midi, France’s first black regiment, before he fell out of favor during the French Revolution. He was said to have fought alongside Toussaint-Louverture in the Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) uprising before returning to Paris for his final years. Throughout music was his strongest love. Saint-Georges left us upwards of a dozen violin concertos, a number of symphonies concertantes (showpieces for a group of soloists with orchestra), and a handful of polished symphonies in the Classical mode of Haydn and Mozart.

Violinist, composer, and music educator Jessie Montgomery was born in New York City in 1981. She is a member of the Catalyst Quartet and a collaborator with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble. For close to twenty years Montgomery has been affiliated with The Sphinx Organization, which supports the accomplishments of young African-American and Latino string players. Her debut album, Strum: Music for Strings was released in 2015 on Azica Records. In fall 2018, Montgomery became a Virginia B. Toulmin Fellow at the Centre for Ballet and the Arts, where she will work on a new ballet for Dance Theater of Harlem and the Virginia Arts Festival, in collaboration with choreographer Claudia Schreier. Other upcoming highlights include premieres of new works for soprano Julia Bullock and the Muir Quartet and performances by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. 

Jessie Montgomery has provided the following on Starburst:

This brief one-movement work for string orchestra is a play on imagery of rapidly changing musical colors. Exploding gestures are juxtaposed with gentle fleeting melodies in an attempt to create a multidimensional soundscape. A common definition of a starburst: “the rapid formation of large numbers of new stars in a galaxy at a rate high enough to alter the structure of the galaxy significantly” lends itself almost literally to the nature of the performing ensemble who premiered the work, the Sphinx Virtuosi, and I wrote the piece with their dynamic in mind.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was born to a father from Sierra Leone and a mother from England, who raised him as a single parent after the father returned to Africa. Coleridge-Taylor entered the Royal College of Music as a violinist in 1890 and by the turn of the century he produced imposing works for orchestra, chorus, and the stage. At the age of seventeen he became impassioned by the music of Dvořák, which led to an interest in American and African-American music, which Dvořák promoted. Coleridge-Taylor was also an admired conductor and taught composition at Trinity College of Music (London) and the Guildhall School of Music. He encountered many luminaries of African-American culture when they passed through England and made three visits to the United States, in 1904, 1906, and 1910. Coleridge-Taylor's Le tarantelle fretillante takes the form of a tarantella, a lively Italian dance created as a cure for deadly spider bites.

James P. Johnson was born in New Brunswick, NJ on February 1, 1894 and died in New York City on November 17, 1955. He began his career writing for jazz piano. During the 1920s he recorded a series of his own compositions, and he was heard on disk with such singers as Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. From the ’20s through the ’40s Johnson also wrote for the Broadway stage, and his first musical, Runnin’ Wild, from 1923, is probably his most successful, giving us the songs “Old Fashioned Love” and “The Charleston.” During his Broadway period Johnson also began to compose larger orchestral works that incorporated jazz elements. 

The name of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) heads the roster of French theater composers of the late Baroque period thanks to the stream of stage works that poured from his pen from 1733 through 1760. Anyone watching Rameau’s career unroll would have found this a most surprising achievement for a composer who showed no particular aptitude for the stage in the first decades of his career. In fact, he celebrated his fiftieth birthday a week before the premiere of his first large-scale stage work, the opera Hippolyte et Aricie. Castor et Pollux dates from 1737.

Duke Ellington is perhaps the greatest jazz composer of all time. He was born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington DC on April 29, 1899 and he died in New York City on May 24, 1974. He began studying piano when he was seven and played ragtime as a boy. His professional debut came when he was seventeen. In 1923 he went to New York and organized a big band—originally ten instruments—that revolutionized the concept of jazz. Complex arrangements were introduced, requiring both improvising skill and the ability to read scores. Ellington eventually expanded the scope of his compositions. He gave us thousands of memorable short pieces, but he also wrote works of symphonic scope such as Black, Brown and Beige, conceived in five sections and intended to portray the history of African-Americans throughout their music. He wrote scores for such films as The Asphalt Jungle and Anatomy of a Murder and incidental music for Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. Ellington’s first ballet The River was composed in 1970. His son Mercer called the work “a kind of religious allegory that dealt with the cycle of birth and rebirth,” in which the river itself is the protagonist.

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