Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Saturday, November 13, 2004


It’s difficult for a classical layperson to understand just how much latitude a performer has even when performing the most familiar scores. From my own thin collection, the differences between Glenn Gould’s and Mieczyslaw Horszowski’s readings of the Prelude to J. S. Bach’s English Suite Number 5 stand out starkly. Gould plays the piece about a minute quicker, and his tone is bright, alert, forceful, sharp, with his unique almost-staccato touch. Horszowski is ruminative, softer, and with a much smoother articulation. They both bring out Bach’s counterpoint clearly. And most surprisingly, to someone who equated classical playing with a strict tempo, they both take liberties, speeding up and slowing down subtly across the weave of the piece. Horszowski gives the impression of playing at the speed of quiet thought, with the tiniest occasional hesitations. Gould’s rhythm is equally personal, though I can’t say what it conjures for me other than I like it. (I don’t like Gould’s occasionally audible, very soft moaning and groaning in the background. It’s disturbing and distracting.)

I thought of this Friday night while attending a recital by the Ghanaian-born, English- and American-educated, and Northwest American-dwelling pianist William Chapman Nyaho at the St. Ignatius Chapel of Seattle University not far from my house. In his renderings of piano transcriptions of Bach pieces, he would place the slightest pause between phrases, a sort of musical comma. It was one attractive feature of an enrapturing recital.

Nyaho opened with three Bach pieces as a sort of pianistic introduction and familiar audience warm-up to a concert of music that was probably otherwise unfamiliar to everybody in the hall, including me. His Bach was a lovely getting-to-know-you greeting, because Nyaho specializes in music of composers of African descent.

He’s a charming and personable performer, introducing each set of pieces amiably and knowledgably, giving biographical and other contextual details, as well as a few musical hints, including occasional previews of important licks to listen for, and what they mean to him. When he said about the movement “Egwu Amala” from the suite “Talking Drums” by the contemporary Nigerian composer Joshua Uzoigwe, that he had never seen a piece in 19/8 meter before, but that it was really quite easy because it broke down into 2 + 2 + 2 + 3 + 2 + 3 + 2 + 3, many of us laughed. He smiled and said he would not ask us to clap along. But the comment wasn’t merely funny; it helped me hear the piece. Similarly with his other introductions, including his remark about the “Ukom” movement of “Talking Drums,” that although the meter says 12/8, the left-hand figures really range across a measure-and-a-half, twice, followed by a measure. I couldn’t hear that phrasing while listening to the piece, but I benefitted from trying to.

In addition to a thoroughly expert and very personal approach to rhythm, Nyaho draws a wonderful array of colors from the piano. Treble phrases can sound like trumpets or flutes; chordal passages can call to mind string sections or trombones. “The piano is like an orchestra” -- I had never experienced the truth of this old saw with such clarity before.

The program was a cabinet of wonders. The Bach was enchanting; “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring,” in Myra Hess’s transcription, made my eyes water. “Deep River” by the African-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 - 1912) brought a gorgeous romantic sweeping landscape into sonic view, very cinematic. “Scherzo” by the African American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932 - 2004, who was named in honor of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and who may have written the piece for Nyaho) was a fiendishly virtuoso piece of dramatic, dissonant, and witty modernism. “Talking Drums” provided a beautiful link between West African folk and pop music on the one side and the minimalism of Steve Reich on the other. “In the Bottoms” Suite by the African American composer Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882 - 1943) offered lovely African American-flavored melodies in the bittersweet harmonic language of Chopin; the closing movement “Dance: Juba” was a hoe-down fiddle tune that pre-saged Copland’s “Rodeo” and ‘60s jazz evocations of white country music by Oliver Nelson and Nat Adderly (I’m guessing the link between Dett’s version of African American folk music and Copland and Nelson and Adderly’s versions of white country music is minstrelsy).

The concert’s highlight, for me, was “Troubled Water” by the African American pianist/arranger/composer Margaret Bonds (1913 - 1972), an awesome arrangement of the traditional African American spiritual also known as “Wade in the Water.” I’d never heard of Bonds. According to Nyaho, she was the first musician of African descent to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and she wrote arrangements of spirituals for Leontyne Price. “Troubled Water” is one of only three works for piano of hers that survive, and the other two have never been published but are stuck in an archive in Chicago. Bonds is said to have had many other arrangements in her repertoire, but she didn’t write them down. “Troubled Water” is powered with a rhythmically propulsive riff that would have done Mingus proud; it has the rhythmic power of jazz, with the rhythmic and formal and structural complexity and flexibility of classical and a harmonic virtuosity that outshone Art Tatum. Based on Nyaho’s rendering, I’m confident that had Bonds recorded as a jazz artist, she would be in the pantheon. As it is, I don’t know whether she recorded at all. A search on Amazon coughs up a few scattered pieces on a few anthologies devoted to African American composers. I’m going to have to buy Nyaho’s CD, because I want to hear this piece again, and I’m guessing that after that I’ll want to hear it again and again. And mourn the lost legacy.

I thank Mr. Nyaho and the composers for a wonderful evening of music.

What a great review! Thank you. I feel as if I were there and look forward to hearing William Chapman Nyaho soon.
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