Festival highlights Jamaican composers
Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
A recent, enthusiastically received concert showcased the music of two outstanding - though little known - deceased Jamaican composers, and introduced the work of an upcoming one.
The concert was held on Saturday, June 1, at Andrews Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church, Hope Road, St Andrew. It was one event in this year's Jamaica Choral Scholars' Festival, an annual two-week programme dedicated to the study and performance of Caribbean music, with an emphasis on choral works.
Conductor for the concert was Dr Andrew Marshall, the choir's founder and musical director, and also assistant professor of music and director of choirs at Northern Caribbean University (NCU), Mandeville.
The deceased musicians were Sir Frederic Hymen Cowen (January 29, 1852 - October 6, 1935) and Lisa M. Narcisse, LRSM, OD (May 25, 1912 - July 2, 2001). The contemporary musician is Mickel Gordon, a young pianist/composer.
Some may question Dr Marshall's classification of Sir Frederic as a Jamaican musician. That cornucopia of knowledge, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, states that Cowen "was widely regarded as one of the most versatile British musicians of his time", and several Internet sites also refer to him as British.
land of greats
But if Jamaica could reasonably claim as our own this pianist/conductor/composer, whose work includes four operas, four operettas, three oratorios, six symphonies, 20-odd orchestral works, 300 songs and more, and who conducted several internationally acclaimed orchestras, shouldn't we do so? It could add to our already considerable reputation as a spawning ground of great music and musicians. Not only have we created mento, ska, Rastafarian rhythms, reggae and dancehall, and also produced some international jazz artistes, but we have given the world big names in the 'art music' world as well.
It's true that Cowen's huge oeuvre doesn't include anything with a Jamaican flavor, but here's our trump card - Cowen was born at 90 Duke Street, Kingston, and lived here for the first four years of his life. (Experts say one's first four years are the most important.)
Cowen was then taken by his parents to England and eventually so distinguished himself musically - starting from six years old when he published his first waltz - that he received honorary doctorates from the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh in 1900 and 1910, respectively. He was knighted in 1911 by King George V.
The two Cowen songs selected for the concert were the lullaby-like Sweet as the Sun and a solemn song of thanksgiving, The Voice of the Father. Both were beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano Kadian Northover, an NCU graduate.
Narcisse's Folk Mass was the centerpiece of the evening. Lasting about 15 minutes, it has six sections - Lord, Have Mercy; Glory to God; Holy, Holy, Holy; Eucharist Acclamation; Lamb of God and Recessional - with a pleasing mix of joyous and solemn moods.
It was sung by a soloist, Samara Marshall, supported by the 24 singers of the Choral Scholars. Accompanying them were a steel pannist, a drummer and Mickel Gordon on piano. Dr Marshall conducted.
In view of its simple, easily remembered libretto and the hummable folk tunes, there is no reason why the mass shouldn't be popular. However, Dr Marshall has said, unfortunately, in general Narcisse's work has "largely remained unknown to many Jamaicans, nationally and overseas".
In communication emailed to me before the concert, Dr Marshall stated that the edition of Narcisse's mass used was a choral adaptation of the original work. He explained that "in her original publication, the music existed as a single vocal line (voice part unspecified) with keyboard accompaniment. It appeared to have been handwritten and published directly from her manuscript. Performance directions, tempo markings and other musical directives were largely absent, apart from a few, clear indications of the same".
He continued: "In arranging the work, attempts were made to adhere to the spirit of the work, guided by her philosophy that her music was written to be simple enough for the 'common man' of Jamaica to understand. With this in mind, our goal is to ... bring to it a folk-like quality [and serve] Narcisse's intent to create a new strain of Jamaican classical music that may be performed by generations to come."
Narcisse, a graduate of the Immaculate Conception High School (ICHS), began teaching music while still a student. She remained at the ICHS for 48 years until her retirement in 1977, teaching in the kindergarten and prep schools. She was head of the Music Department, a piano and theory teacher, and partner with her sister, Mrs Beryl Mair, in the Narcisse School of Music.
She was co-founder and director for 29 years of the internationally performing ICHS Glee Club. In 1979, the Jamaican Government conferred on her the Order of Distinction. Narcisse died in a car accident in Canada.
At last year's Choral Scholars' Festival, Dr Marshall's opera, Hardtalk, had its world premiere at the Institute of Jamaica Lecture Hall. Performed by the Jamaica Choral Scholars, the 25-minute work portrayed a television interview programme by the same name, which discusses sensitive topics affecting the island.
Dr Marshall describes the opera as "a sociological, musical commentary on Jamaican life that explores a multiplicity of issues facing Jamaicans on a day-to-day basis, and recognising unity among our people as a major ingredient for national success".
Gordon's composition, Christ is All, a soulful hymn which he dedicated to his grandmother, was sung on Sunday by the Saxthorpe Methodist Choir. His accompaniment of the piece on piano was much more euphonious than the rather shrill rendition by the choir.
A Jamaican spiritual, De World in Trouble, sung by NCU student Karim Chang, and a Belizean one, Ju Jing, sung by Kedron Clarke, were two crowd-pleasers which had many rocking in their seats.
Also on the programme was a lecture by Glenda Anderson, head of the Voice Department at NCU, entitled 'Church Music in the Context of Worship'. Music for worship, Anderson told the audience, should unify worshippers, create the proper atmosphere for the message, and reinforce church doctrine. On the other hand, she said, the aim of popular music is essentially entertainment and she distinguished between it and folk music, "the music of the people", which is simple and unpretentious.
Anderson pointed out that folk music has influenced art music over the ages.