Song of the Day

The Song of the Day feature of Sparks & Wiry Cries highlights art song performances from around the world. Feel free to contact if you would like to suggest a song, performer, or composer! 

March 1

Happy March! Barbara Hendricks, the London Symphony Orchestra, and Michael Tilson-Thomas perform the orchestrated version of "Dear March, come in!" from Copland's Emily Dickinson settings.

February 28

Today's Song of the Day is a triple hitter: first of all, we're delighted to share this insightful and thought-provoking article from baritone Jean Bernard Cerin. He and pianist Veena K. Kulkarni make up Duo 1717, and together they will present the final recital on our Casement Fund Concert Series, "KRIK-KRAK: STORIES OF WATER AND MAGIC: Songs and storytelling for children of all ages."

The article below explores challenges to true diversity in classical music from Cerin's perspective as a native-born Haitian. In his own words, "Diversity seems to be all the rage today. The pressure is high on presenters to include traditionally marginalized voices in their programming, in the hope of welcoming new audiences to the fold. This makes for an exciting time to be a classical musician of color, or a feminist musician, or queer musician. However, as the classical music industry recognizes the inherent value in telling diverse stories on its stages, we also need to have more frequent and nuanced conversations about what makes these programs successful and how they might be culturally insensitive."

For those close readers (and listeners) to the Song of the Day, you may recall that we foreshadowed this article a few days ago in relation to a work by Tania León, setting the same text as a well-known work by Montsalvage. If you want to review that song, click here!
 Otherwise, think deeply about Cerin's words and enjoy his performance of Villa-Lobos' Xangô from Canções típicas brasileiras:  

February 27

I could listen to the spectacular Grace Bumbry all day! This is a recording of "Verborgenheit" from Wolf's Mörike-Lieder also featuring pianist Erik Werba. For those of you not familiar with Bumbry's work and career, she was born in 1937 and quickly established herself as a force to reckon with. For example: she won the Met Council awards at age 21 alongside Martina Arroyo, was the first black singer to appear at the Bayreuth festival (at age 24! alongside Victoria de los Angeles!), and performed in major opera houses throughout Europe and America. When Shirley Verrett was unable to perform in a run of Les Troyens at the then-new Opéra Bastille, Bumbry appeared not only as her regularly-scheduled Cassandre but also as Verrett's Didon--in the same evening. Bumbry was not only singing like a goddess, she was taking names! (Literally!)

February 26

The great mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar, live in recital!

Quivar, born in Philadelphia in 1944, made a career which spanned concert work, recitals, and operatic stages around the world. Alongside performing the great works of the operatic, recital, and concert canon, she premiered new works and remains dedicated to presenting works by African-American composers. For a brief biography of her remarkable career, as well as a program full of little-known works by African-American composers, see the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society Website.

Though the recording quality of this recital below, given in 1990 at Carnegie Hall, leaves much to be desired, nothing can tarnish Quivar's gleaming voice.

February 25

Soprano Leona Mitchell, a native of Oklahoma whose illustrious career has brought her to major opera houses around the world, performs Duparc's La vie antérieure and L'invitation au voyage in this live recording. The video is not able to be embedded on this page, so make sure you follow the link!

February 24

Feeling tired, in that long-winter, bone-aching, cold-rain, dark-sky kind of way? Robert McFerrin's crystal-clear voice will pierce any fog around your soul and lift your spirits, so you can get back to working to make the world a better place!

For those of you who don't remember the post honoring McFerrin last year, I hope you'll take the time to follow the link and read some words summarizing his amazing life and accomplishments. But in short:
- The first African-American man to grace the stage of the Met (making his debut just after Marian Anderson) and the first to be featured in a title roll (as Rigoletto) the following year.
- Father of another great American musician, Bobby McFerrin
- A master teacher, who brought his talents not only as a singer but also as an educator to enrich generations of lives around the world.

The secret to his success? "I believe that my singing of gospel music and hymns strengthened my voice and gave me the ability to sustain my singing and endure whatever role I was assigned to sing."

February 23

Today's Song of the Day is a sing-along for all you folks at home, in honor of W.E.B. Du Bois, who would celebrate his 150th birthday today. It is prefaced by a bit of prose for context, also by Du Bois.

Of course you have faced the dilemma: it is announced, they all smirk and rise. If they are ultra, they remove their hats and look ecstatic; then they look at you. What shall you do? Noblesse oblige; you cannot be boorish, or ungracious; and too, after all it is your country and you do love its ideals if not all of its realities. Now, then, I have thought of a way out: Arise, gracefully remove your hat, and tilt your head. Then sing as follows, powerfully and with deep unction. They’ll hardly note the little changes and their feelings and your conscience will thus be saved:

My country tis of thee,
Late land of slavery,
Of thee I sing.
Land where my father’s pride
Slept where my mother died,
From every mountain side
Let freedom ring!

My native country thee
Land of the slave set free,
Thy fame I love.
I love thy rocks and rills
And o’er thy hate which chills,
My heart with purpose thrills,
To rise above.

Let laments swell the breeze
And wring from all the trees
Sweet freedom’s song.
Let laggard tongues awake,
Let all who hear partake,
Let Southern silence quake,
The sound prolong.

Our fathers’ God to thee
Author of Liberty,
To thee we sing
Soon may our land be bright,
With Freedom’s happy light
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God our King.

February 21

The honey-voiced Jonita Lattimore appears in this gorgeous recording of Patricia Morehead's "Good News Falls Gently," a work for soprano and chamber orchestra. The work features text by Regina Harris Baiocchi, an African-American composer, poet, and artist based in Chicago. All three of these women were unknown to me before today, but each is an inspiring and incredibly accomplished artist, and I hope you will take the time to explore their work!

February 18

Yesterday, we featured Tania León's setting of a Derek Walcott poem. Today, her setting of Nicolás Guillén's "Canto Negro." This poem is also featured in the better-known Montsalvatge "Cinco canciones negras," a song that will be discussed in an upcoming blog post by Jean Bernard Cerin. The larger implications of Guillén's difficult text are incredibly important, though difficult to discuss, and we are glad to share not only Cerin's important insights but León's own grappling with this poem.

February 17

Today, Cuban-American composer Tania León's "Love After Love," a setting of Derek Walcott for soprano and marimba. This thoughtful, rich setting of Walcott's text is a wonderful introduction to León's oeuvre. Read more about her operatic treatment of the Little Rock Nine here, and more on the late, great Walcott here.

February 16

Today, the Song of the Day honors Caterina Jarboro (née Katherine Yarborough). Jarboro (1898?-1986) was the first African-American woman to star in a desegregated opera production when she took the Chicago Civic Opera Company's stage as Aida in 1933. Her storied career included several recitals at NYC's Town Hall and Carnegie Hall, and the New York Times (and other leading newspapers of her day) praised her luminous voice, impeccable diction, and expression. Though she became known for her classical performances, her career began on Broadway in "Shuffle Along" (you may recall its revival just a few years ago).

Jarboro, like all the artists we've profiled, faced terrible discrimination. She did have much more success in Europe, and only returning to America when the war broke out. But despite her important career, and the many decades between her return to the US and her death in 1986, there seem to be no recordings of Jarboro. So today's song is silent--but hopefully it is a silence of contemplation, and a silence which leads to a more just, song-full future.

February 15

Mourning those lost in senseless gun violence yesterday.

If you too feel this is unacceptable, consider contacting your representatives and asking them to fight for a more peaceful future for us all.

This recording features Kenneth Spencer (1913-1964), who worked as a gardner (while taking private voice lessons) until he was noticed by the great Roland Hayes. Hayes, an African-American tenor, helped the young Spencer find a place at Eastman. Upon graduation, Spencer returned to his native LA and found work in Hollywood (including as an understudy for another great actor/singer, Paul Robeson) and later on Broadway. However, the racism that was so prevalent in America at the time prevented Spencer from taking the kinds of roles he deserved, and he found much greater success and happiness in Europe. Sadly, Spencer lost his life in the crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 304 in 1964.

February 14

Happy St. Valentine's Day from us here at Sparks & Wiry Cries! We hope that, however you're marking the occasion, you share a little love for art song, which is there for you no matter what. Art song won't judge. Art song promotes breathing, which is probably better for heart health than chocolate and wine (though if you combined all three, who knows!). Art song just wants to exist! (And after all, art song probably has more breakup or heartbreak songs that it does songs of triumphant love...)

We're taking the evening to exult once more in Leontyne Price's gorgeous singing and David Garvey's beautiful playing, this time an entire album:

February 10

Happy 91st birthday to the legendary Leontyne Price! Born on this day in 1927, Price is one of the most important voices of the 20th/21st centuries. For her 90th birthday last year, a few news outlets chose to highlight some of her many, many accomplishments. I love the three short interviews that NPR includes here, each illuminating a different aspect of her life, singing, and storied career--from the beautiful and life-changing to the difficult.
As for the recording, I've chosen an arrangement of "Lord, I just can't keep from cryin' sometimes" by composer Margaret Bonds, a friend of Price's and an another ground-breaking African-American artist. This clip includes audio of Price introducing the song, and dates from her 1965 Carnegie Hall recital debut.

February 9

For some reason, it seems very difficult to find recordings of Débria Brown, despite her stature. Brown, born in 1936, was an important part of breaking down the color barrier in the opera world. Her opera debut came in 1958, when she performed Escamillo with New York City Opera. She went on to a busy career in Europe, before returning to the US to teach at the University of Houston.

February 8

The resplendent Carol Brice performs Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen with the Pittsburgh Symphony under Fritz Reiner in this recording from 1946. Brice (1918-1985) was the first African-American winner of the Naumberg Award, and frequently appeared in recital with her brother, pianist Jonathan Brice.

February 6

Today, the ground-breaking Jules Bledsoe (1897-1943) singing "Dear Old Southland" in a recording from 1932.

Bledsoe was a contemporary of another great polymathic American baritone, Paul Robeson. Bledsoe spoke multiple languages, studied medicine at Columbia University, wrote songs and an opera, appeared in Hollywood films, originated the role of Joe in Show Boat, sang principal roles at Chicago Opera and throughout Europe... Not only did he appear as a soloist with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, the BBC Symphony, and the Cosmopolitan Opera Association in New York, the Concertgebouw even premiered a set of four songs he wrote for baritone and orchestra. Bledsoe tragically passed away at the age of 46 from a brain hemorrhage. Of course, had Bledsoe not been faced with the racist attitudes and policies of his day, we would likely have more recordings of this phenomenal voice, and he would likely have had a career that made him a household name even now. So, we will have to "settle" for the glorious, affecting music-making he demonstrates in this recording below, just a small sample of the work he did throughout his career.

February 5

William Grant Still's gorgeous "Little Mother" from the cycle "From the Hearts of Women," performed here by Margaret Astrup and the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra.

Still (1895-1978) is remembered, among countless other accomplishments, for being first the African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony performed by such a major orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company (New York City Opera), and the first to have an opera (A Bayou Legend) performed on national television (though sadly this barrier was not broken until 1981, after his death). He did not have a large song output, but all his works are all beautifully crafted.

February 4

Ok, today's Song of the Day stretches the definition of song... but it's hard to talk about African American singers without talking about Etta Moten Barnett. So today, a documentary about this truly groundbreaking artist, this woman who was the first African American woman to perform at the White House, who starred in Hollywood films, who was the voice behind Ginger Rogers in Professional Sweetheart, who was the inspiration for the eponymous Bess in Porgy and Bess, and who was an important figure in the fight for equal rights. In the excellent documentary below, you can certainly hear recordings of her singing, but more importantly you can learn about Etta Moten Barnett as a whole.

February 3

Tonight, ethereal soprano Harolyn Blackwell performs Ricky Ian Gordon's setting of Langston Hughes' beautiful poem, "My People."

Blackwell, born in 1955, made her first big break after auditioning for the revival of West Side Story. Bernstein cast her as Francisca (Consuelo in the original production) and, if you've been carefully following the Song of the Day posts since last year, you may remember that this role is what brought the young Reri Grist her own fame. This role lead to a relationship between the two generations of Franciscas/Consuelos and between these two great artists. Blackwell's career moved more solidly into operatic work after winning the Met Council Auditions in 1983. From there, Blackwell's career took her to performances on the world's greatest stages.

In addition to all of this, Blackwell has worked to help bring opera to diverse communities, from her first professional life as a music teacher in Parochial schools to her later work with 'Affiliate Artists.' Speaking on the paucity of classical music awareness today, Blackwell said, "We don't have audience participation anymore, partly because of being raised on television. We have become an audience that receives entertainment in a passive way. I think in order to participate you have to have knowledge and knowledge means you have to take the time to sit down and educate. When you are able to communicate with people and show them you're just another human being with a gift, it makes all the difference. My gift happens to be singing. When you go to an opera you see so many people, but you don't have an opportunity to have that one-on-one contact and that's what was so great about that program."

Finally, the text for Langston Hughes' beautiful poem, "My People."
The night is beautiful,
And so the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

February 2

Today, baritone Donnie Ray Albert and pianist Polli Chambers-Salazar perform "3 Songs for Baritone and Piano," by the late Robert Owens. The harrowing texts for this cycle, dedicated to the memory of activist/author George Jackson, are by Claude McKay.
Albert, born in 1950, is best known for his operatic career, performing not only in major US houses but also appearing in leading roles in such renowned venues as La Scala.
Owens was a remarkable musician. His artistic life began as a pianist, studying with his mother, but Owens took up composing by the age of 10 and premiered his First Piano Concerto with the Berkley Young Peoples' Symphony at 15. His service in WWII allowed him to pursue further musical studies in Europe, where he faced considerably less racism than at home in America. He did briefly return to the US to teach at Albany State College, but after two years returned to Germany, where he remained for the rest of his long career as a pianist, composer, and actor. Owens passed away last January at the age of 92, but left behind a wealth of vocal music. Some works, like the songs below, directly confront the America that refused to accept him and his artistic gifts.

February 1

I sadly hadn't heard of the spectacular soprano Marvis Martin until a few days ago, when one of her recordings showed up as suggested video on Youtube. Let me tell you, I--and you, if you haven't heard her either--was missing out!

Martin was born and raised in Florida, making her Met debut in 1982. After some busy years of stage work, she made the decision to focus her work more on concert and song performance, saying, "I love opera, but don't necessarily love all the hubbub."

We at Sparks & Wiry Cries understand wholeheartedly! But, knowing that, where has the splendid Ms. Martin been my whole life? And why does there seem to be a paucity of details about her career on the internet? Does anyone know more about Ms. Martin?

Here she is performing three songs (Ned Rorem, and two arrangements of spirituals by Hall Johnson) with Jeffrey Kahane in 1987.

For past Songs of the Day, see the Sparks & Wiry Cries Facebook page.

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