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Thursday, July 25, 2019

Bruce Levingston, Piano, Citizen

Pianist Bruce Levingston makes full and effective use of the idea of a thematic program on his solo piano disk Citizen (Sono Luminus 92228). The idea for it all came out of an invitation to perform at the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. The pianist was inspired to meditate as a result on the myriad complexities of the state, as an incubator of culturally and categorically diverse figures from B.B King to Leontyne Price and William Faulkner, and as importantly, as a historical locus for the intense struggle against poverty, race and inequality.

In the end Levingston began to place the reflections on his home state into the larger global picture of a mutual recognition of the other--her or his own and the other's comparative history and differences in identity, the struggle with issues of patriotism and citizenship, full participation in the nation state as citizen and ultimately as citizen of the world.

And so the CD program Citizen, a grouping of diverse solo piano works focusing on the above and the idea that as citizens of the earth we all must insist on the preservation of each individual's human right to exist "with dignity and freedom," in the pianist's words. The works represented here are by composers "who have contemplated these issues...[working for the cause] of civility, humanity and love."

In the process there is a rather wide variety of pieces, mostly from our Modern Era. From a somewhat earlier time we have, and happily so, Frederic Chopin and three of his Mazurkas, nicely played. These dance works reflected Chopin's profound love of his homeland while he lived in Paris.

Bringing up the well-known composers front in no less a fashion is Black composer William Grant Sill (1895-1978) and his piece "Summertime." It shows Still's lifetime involvement in, among other things, translating the jazz-Afro-American nexus into New Music terms.

Lesser known but thematically appropriate works and composers form the core of the program's theme and make it a distinct entity. The title work "American Citizen" by Nolan Gasser (b. 1964) has its basis on Mississippi painter Marie Atkinson Hull (1890-1980) and her painting of the same name, depicting in 1936 one Mississippian--and so the painting's title  John Wesley Washington, An American Citizen, even though he was born into slavery and then existed outside of it after the Civil War. In the Jim Crow world he was forced to occupy he was most certainly not given the status of full citizenship--could not vote for example--and via the painting Hull wanted to make the statement that he should be treated with the equality his humanity should guarantee. The Gasser work puts all of this in musical terms.

From there we have David T. Little (b. 1978) and the world premier recording of his six movement "Accumulation of Purpose," honoring the Freedom Riders, Civil Rights Activists who rode through the US South in 1961 to protest segregation by race.

"Locations in Time (Three Pieces)" brings us to Augusta Gross (b. 1944) and this three part work that thematically relates to her acuity as a practicing psychologist. Each movement concerns a psychological state, an emotional feeling, a kind of being. The movement titles reflect this in "Other," "Elegy," and "Toward Night." The liners explain and I would recommend you read them as--and if--you want to hear and understand the music.

The world premier recordings of C. Price Walden's "Sacred Spaces" and his arrangement of "Amazing Grace" follow. The former is Walden's response to the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and Walden's identity as a Gay Christian. The spaces are churches, which Walden views correctly as in the best instances a sanctuary from bigotry and hatred, and for all that a cornerstone of important historical Civil Rights resistances. The concluding, iconic "Amazing Grace" rings forth in the Walden arrangement with full glory and refreshing pianism.

With that our listening is complete. The performances by Levingston are thoroughly artistic in the interpretive manner of the best of the great pianists. The cultural-ethical thematic focus of the program is uplifting and positive, and it in turn re-familiarizes us with and/or introduces us to works well worth our attention, giving us a programmatic kind of lyrical Modernism not in some monolithic way but with a varied set of works that stand for the right things, that come at us on the good side of history and remind us all what it should be to be righteously human, to embrace all of humanity, to redress inequality, all of those things that the Civil Rights Movement rightly insisted upon.

This is a good listen and deserves your support. Need I say more?

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