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Jeni Slotchiver delivers a well chosen and intriguing program on 'American Heritage' / SHARPS & FLATIRONS

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SHARPS & FLATIRONS - Peter Alexander writes......One of the perks of job that I do is that people send me recordings.

They want me to review or write about them. Sometimes they come in the U.S. mail, actual CDs. Sometimes they come in the form of links to Mp3 files, although I prefer not to review those because the sound quality of CDs is better. Sometimes I write and ask for a CD instead, and sometimes they send me one.

These recent CDs that showed up in my mailbox all provide opportunities to hear music outside of standard concert fare. This is all the more welcome as the past year has shown even more clearly than usual how much of the music on offer is the same from concert to concert, place to place, year to year. These discs contain music that is definitely not standard concert fare, and they are recommended to help widen your horizons. 

Pianist Jeni Slotchiver is catching the wave of interest in music by African-American composers with the well chosen and intriguing program for her disc titled "American Heritage" (Zoho clasix ZM202008). 

The disc includes works by virtually all of the most important Black composers from the 19th and early 20thcenturies, starting with the American Jewish/Creole virtuoso pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829–69); Harry T. Burleigh (1866–1949), who sang spirituals for Dvořák; The English Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912), who toured the U.S. three times; R. Nathaniel Dett (1882–1943); the remarkable African-American women composers Florence Price (1887–1953) and Margaret Bonds (1913–1972); and William Grant Still (1895–1978).

Many of these composers have undergone a rediscovery during the past year, as political winds and the time to explore new repertoire have liberated performers from the tyranny of expected repertoire. (Note recent CU faculty Tuesday recitals by David Korevaar and Andrew Cooperstock.) The advantage of Slotchiver's disc is that it brings so many disparate voices together in one place, giving both listeners and performers an entrée into an important and underrepresented part of our musical history.

The pieces that stood out for me were Burleigh's suite of six small pieces From the Southland and Price's three Dances in the Canebrakes, two sets of Romantic character pieces transported to the American south. They are marked with gentle syncopations, just enough to be a little "raggy" but not too much for the genteel listeners of their era.

Gottschalk contributes two showpieces to the collection: "Union," a collection of Civil-War-era patriotic songs, including "The Star Spangled Banner" (not yet the National Anthem): and "Banjo," a captivating pianistic evocation of the ultimate southern folk instrument. Dett's "Juba," his most frequently performed piece, sparkles along energetically, and Still's "Blues from Lenox Avenue" enters a different expressive realm altogether.

One piece stands apart, as it is by a living composer and therefore stylistically removed from the others. Although it is by white composer, Frederic Rzewski's "Down by the Riverside" is based on an African-American spiritual and thus dips into similar source material as other works on the disc.

One of the most interesting composers writing today, Rzewski is well worth knowing. If you have not heard his great set of variations "The People United will never be Defeated," listen to it now. At just under seven minutes, "Down by the Riverside" cannot rival "The People United" for impact, but it is a good example of Rzewski's virtuosic and dazzlingly modern style.

Slotchiver's performances are precise and detailed throughout, with individual lines and syncopations carefully delineated. Her performances reflect the salon more than the concert stage. The syncopations are all gentle, the style refined, when a little more raw energy would bring the music more vividly to life and cast the profile of each piece into greater relief.

This is a worthwhile collection, perfect for our times. Here you can venture off the beaten path with music that sounds reassuringly familiar in its American-ness. It is an important part of our musical heritage that is way overdue for discovery.

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