Rediscovering the rigor of composers Julia Perry and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson A new album, American Counterpoints, reasserts the importance of two 20th century Black composers whose work has been neglected.

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Rediscovering the rigor of composers Julia Perry and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One hundred years ago in Lexington, Ky., Julia Perry was born. She would grow up to write music like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPERIENTIAL ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF PERRY'S "PRELUDE FOR STRINGS")

CHANG: Julia Perry's career flourished briefly, but after her death in 1979, she was all but forgotten, and many of her scores remain unpublished. A new album devoted to Perry's music and that of her younger contemporary, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, has just been released, and our reviewer, NPR's Tom Huizenga, has been listening.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: You can argue this new album, "American Counterpoints," is an encouraging result of the recent racial reckoning. You could also just say it's long overdue. But after the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, the classical music field in the U.S. began a much-needed shift toward Black composers. One who's ripe for rediscovery is Julia Perry.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPERIENTIAL ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF PERRY'S "CONCERTO FOR VIOLIN AND ORCHESTRA: IV. FAST")

HUIZENGA: That's Perry's darkly textured violin concerto with soloist Curtis Stewart and the Experiential Orchestra. Perry finished the work in 1968, but it took more than four decades to reconstruct a definitive score in which we can hear all the subtlety, like a violin soaring above a tolling piano. Perry's career launched in the early 1950s. She won Guggenheim Fellowships, studied in Europe and, in 1965, was the first Black woman to have a piece broadcast by the New York Philharmonic. But shortly after, her health, finances and career spiraled downward. She was only 55 when she died, and few remembered her music. The album also offers the more experimental side of Perry. In the symphony in one movement for violas and basses, the music unexpectedly pauses within a halo of droning strings.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPERIENTIAL ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF PERRY'S "SYMPHONY IN ONE MOVEMENT FOR VIOLAS AND STRING BASSES")

HUIZENGA: Like Perry, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson's music has also been neglected, although he enjoyed a longer, more stable career. Born in Manhattan in 1932, Perkinson was versatile. As a pianist, he toured with jazz drummer Max Roach, he arranged songs for Marvin Gaye and composed for film and television. Reaching back to a pre-Civil War dance of the enslaved, Perkinson wrote "Louisiana Blues Strut (A Cakewalk)" a couple years before he died in 2004. Curtis Stewart's performance captures all the grit and exuberant syncopation.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPERIENTIAL ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF PERKINSON'S "LOUISIANA BLUES STRUT (A CAKEWALK)")

HUIZENGA: Several sides of Perkinson are also on display here. He was just 22 when he wrote his "Sinfonietta No. 1." In the opening movement, he nearly out-Handels (ph) George Frideric Handel with elegant braids of baroque counterpoint. But the soul of the piece lies in the majestic heartbreak of the slow, central "Largo."

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPERIENTIAL ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF PERKINSON'S "LARGO")

HUIZENGA: The album shines much-deserved light on two important and rediscovered figures in American classical music, and the timing couldn't be better for Julia Perry. March marks the centenary of her birth on the 25 and a four-day festival of her music in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: The album is "American Counterpoints." Our reviewer is NPR's Tom Huizenga.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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