Philadelphia Music Project Preserves, Creates Tradition (Summer 2007 Trust Magazine briefing)

Aug 20, 2007

The Philadelphia Music Project commissions and debuts new work, music which may eventually enter the repertoire and become part of the tradition.

And the project also helps keep important musical traditions alive— often largely unknown and in some cases unheard. Frank J. Oteri recently wrote about several of these efforts in the project’s publication PMP Magazine. A New York-based composer and music journalist, he serves as the American Music Center’s composer advocate and is the founding editor of its Web magazine, NewMusicBox (www.newmusicbox.org).

“Take, for example, the music of the African-American composer, keyed bugle virtuoso, and bandleader Francis Johnson (1792-1844),” Oteri wrote. “Johnson’s pioneering social feat of assembling America’s first racially integrated ensemble, despite great obstacles and occasionally life-threatening conditions during one of the bleakest periods of inequality in our history, should alone make him a national hero. Plus his concert programs, which seamlessly blended classical and folk music, serve as a harbinger of today’s polystylistic eclecticism. Yet, while this Philadelphia native was an international celebrity in his day (he even traveled to England to perform for Queen Victoria), today his music is almost never performed.”

That changed in June, when Johnson’s music was presented by the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Irvine Auditorium. In keeping with Johnson’s pluralism, the concert brought together musicians from different genres, including jazz legend Branford Marsalis; the classicallytrained, bluegrass-infused trio Time for Three; and Philadelphia Big Brass, fronted by Rodney Mack, the driving force behind this concert who, Oteri noted, “is something of a modern-day Francis Johnson.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s music critic Peter Dobrin called the music “compelling,” especially in the arrangements and new settings by Steven Heitzer.

Another PMP rescue project was the concert “Hoshanna!: Hebrew Music of the High Baroque,” performed by the Philadelphia Baroque orchestra Tempesta di Mare at Penn and Haverford College. The program consisted of three 18th-century, European, Jewish-themed cantatas, all of which had been filed in European libraries until Israel Adler, founder of the Jewish Music Research Center at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, unearthed them.

The compositions were sung in Hebrew. “Elyon, melits u-mastin” (“God, Defender and Accuser”) was written for Jews in the Italian town of Casale Monferrato in the 1730s (the composer is unknown). The other two—“Bo’i beshalom” and “Kol ha-neshama” (“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!”), a cantata based on the text of Psalm 150—were both composed for Amsterdam’s Jewish community in the 1770s by Giovanni Cristiano Lidarti, an Austrian-born Italian composer of primarily instrumental works trained in a Jesuit seminary.

As David Patrick Stearns, the Inquirer’s reviewer, noted, “This era required the participation of non-Jewish composers in a convoluted process involving Hebrew texts translated into Italian for the sake of the composer, and then fitting the original Hebrew onto the finished vocal lines. So the music requires tangy Hebrew diphthongs sung like smooth Italian.” Noting that the music itself was not original (“that would have defeated the purpose” of showing that the Jewish community could have baroque music), Stearns called the concert quite apt as a “cultural object.”

Another PMP find was assembled by Piffaro, The Renaissance Band. Piffaro recreated the Habsburg Hofkapelle, a 1568 concert originally performed by a large ensemble—of almost orchestral size. This might be news to today’s music lovers, who generally assume that all Renaissance music was played in intimate settings. The group performed at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, in Philadelphia.

And finally, the Philadelphia Folklore Project has featured three artists in its Musicians in Residence Program. Zaye Tete and Fatu Gayflor, from Liberia, focus on their country’s rich vocal music heritage.

“Traditionally,” Oteri wrote, “the performing arts have been intimately woven into the personal lives of Liberians. All of the important stages of a person’s life are expressed through performance, and most people are expected to sing, dance and/or play a musical instrument. But the abilities of both Zaye Tete, a member of the Dan ethnic group originally from Toweh Town in the northeast county of Nimba, and Fatu Gayflor, of the Lorma ethnic group in the northwest village of Kakata, are unique among their compatriots. In the 1970s, both had been selected to perform in the pan-ethnic Liberian National Cultural-Troupe in Keneja, Liberia’s national art village, becoming repositories of the musical traditions of all of Liberia’s numerous ethnic groups. While prior to the current civil war both had become nationally renowned icons, today both struggle to sustain these musical traditions here in the United States, performing for Liberian communities around this country while maintaining demanding day jobs and trying to bring family members out of refugee camps.”

The Folklore Project’s third artist in residence is Mogauwane Mahloele, who was exiled from South Africa for decades because of his anti-Apartheid activities. He now lives in Philadelphia, creating music which forges new traditions from his immersions into several cultures. Mahloele, Oteri wrote, is “a born drummer from the BaPedi people adept at both the playing and crafting of a wide range of traditional instruments from the entire continent, including the West African kora and the Southern African kalimba. He is merging these older traditions with more contemporary American jazz idioms in his ensemble, Tharo.”

For more on the Philadelphia Music Project, one of the Artistic Initiatives of the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage, go to its Web site at www.philadelphiamusicproject.org.

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