Valerie Coleman concert, 12/5/20
I heard a concert on 12/5/20 by composer and flutist Valerie Coleman, presented by Open Space Music. Coleman started the performance by showing a photo of the neighborhood she grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, blocks away from where Muhammad Ali grew up, blocks away from where Breonna Taylor was killed. She sees her music as growing out of her love of storytelling, something she got from her mother.
The first piece, “The Painted Lady,” was inspired by a poem by a poem with the same title by Margaret Danner. The poem is about a butterfly that migrates from Africa to South America, strong yet fragile. Danner compared that butterfly to a Black woman living in Chicago. Coleman’s piece took a minute to grow on me, it didn’t seem to really take up the space of a piece for solo flute, I wanted to hear something else. But it revealed itself within the first minute (though I was imagining a piano part under it). She wrote in some cool effects late in the piece where she was singing through the flute, so you heard her voice and the flute, singing the same pitch (though her voice was lower).
Next was a piece she wrote she wrote for oboist Carrie Vecchione and double bass player Rolf Erdahl. Vecchione was interested in a piece with the theme of Americana and Coleman wrote “American Vein.” The piece travels from west to east, from the redwood forest to Route 66 to Woodstock to the Statue of Liberty to a barn-raising and the idea of community. The music in the piece was interspersed with texts mostly written by Coleman. This was the best music on the program.
The first movement, “Redwood Forest,” opened with the oboist blowing through her instrument without creating a pitch. The bass came in, deep and sonorous, and the effect was primordial and captivating. It developed into something more free-flowing. Vecchione and Erdahl had a wonderful chemistry. The movement had a rather abrupt but satisfying ending.
The second movement, “On Route 66,” started with some vigorous sawing by the bass and car honks by the oboe, charming! This led to some delightful traveling music and a bit of drama (I don’t know precisely what the drama was, but what’s a road trip without some drama). Parts of this movement had a Henry Mancini quality, which of course I adored.
I was most interested to hear that the third movement, “Woodstock 1952,” paid tribute to both Jimi Hendrix and John Cage. I had not known that Cage’s seminal piece, “4.33,” was premiered in Woodstock in 1952. The bass played a wheezy, gritty solo, an imaginative homage to Hendrix. The Cage homage was done with periods of silence in between jittery writing for the two players together.
The fourth movement, “The Melting Pot,” was preceded by a reading of “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus (“Bring me your tired, your poor”). This movement had a depth, a contemplative quality that was moving and involving.
The final movement, “Barn Raising, Bourbon, and Bluegrass,” opened with the bass player knocking on his instrument, which bothered a few of the string players in the audience, but grow up! The bassist put his bass on the floor at one point and then lifted it up slowly while playing one long rising pizzicato, illustrating the barn being raised. This could have been cheesy but instead it was just cute! This movement ended with some rocking rhythms.
The final piece was the first and last movements from a five-movement suite for solo flute. The full suite is called *Matisseries,* inspired by Henri Matisse. The first movement was “Odalisque: Henriette, Harmony in Red,” sensual with bit of a Debussy aura. The final movement, “Creole Dancer,” was inspired by a cut-out collage that Matisse had made, inspired by Josephine Baker. The music was jaunty, mysterious, sexy, and elegant.
She played an encore, a spiritual, “It Is Well With My Soul.” She said that the emotion and triumph of a spiritual is embedded in the music, you don’t need to hear the words, the impact is in the music. That certainly was the case with her performance, it was the perfect closer for the program.
I looked on YouTube for a piece from the program, but no luck. I did find quite a few other pieces, including this charming piece for woodwind quintet, "Umoja." Coleman is the flutist in this performance.