This week’s New York Philharmonic program includes familiar names: Gustav Holst and György Ligeti. But in the middle is a first for the orchestra: “Stabat Mater,” a 1951 work for contralto and strings by Julia Perry.
This won’t be Perry’s first time sharing the stage with better-known songwriters. In February 1954, the Columbia University Composers Forum presented “Stabat Mater” along with George Antheil’s “Ballet Mécanique.” In a post-concert discussion, Perry captivated the audience, sitting between Antheil and Aaron Copland, the event’s host. Critic Ross Parmenter wrote in The New York Times that “Stabat Mater” “remained poignantly in the memory.”
For Perry, a black songwriter who died in 1979 at age 55, the 1950s and 1960s were filled with success, the peak of a career that fell into obscurity despite musicians’ admiration for her work. Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, who will make her Philharmonic debut performing in the solo part of “Stabat Mater,” said of the piece: “I love the vocal writing. It is intense, very introspective, very intimate and also very extreme.” Dima Slobodeniouk, who will host the show, described it as “logically and beautifully written.”
“Stabat Mater” helped Perry obtain two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships after its release. She also won praise from European audiences as a touring director and composer, and in November 1954, Columbia invited Perry to return for the world premiere of her opera “The Cask of Amontillado.” A citation Perry received in 1964 from the National Institute of Arts and Letters praised her as “an excellent composer whose works show the unusual combination of being truly original and at the same time widely accepted.”
In 1965, the New York Philharmonic performed Perry’s “Study for Orchestra,” a revision of “A Short Piece for Orchestra.” (1952), and the first time the ensemble programmed a work by a black woman. That moment, however, came at the beginning of a long and tragic professional decline.
Musicologist Mildred Denby Green has written that at this time Perry was severely limited by illness. The composer’s correspondence with the Philharmonic also reveals extreme financial difficulties: a collect telegram she sent from her home in Akron, Ohio, on May 29, 1965, said: “Unemployed at this time, I do not have the most basic necessities.”
When Perry died, he had no children and only a few published works. Although scholars have identified about 100 of his manuscripts and scores, dozens of them cannot be performed or recorded because there is no established copyright holder. As Christopher Wilkins, music director of the Akron Symphony, said, “all work is protected; It simply has not been authorized, and it cannot be authorized until whoever controls it negotiates it.”
Wilkins first encountered Perry’s compositions in 2020 and marveled at what he saw. She, he said, “may be the most successful and celebrated songwriter to ever emerge from Akron.” He then asked soprano and scholar Louise Toppin, who directs the African Diaspora Music Project, to help him explore Perry’s output and edit some of her manuscripts.
That association led Wilkins to conduct eight of Perry’s orchestral works in concerts and private readings, including a performance and recording last year of “Frammenti dalle Lettere di Santa Caterina” (1953) with Toppin as soloist. The Akron Symphony has also hired a local attorney to help resolve the copyright ambiguities that ensnare many of Perry’s compositions: a barrier that must be overcome by those interested in his music, beyond historical exclusionary practices. among American institutions.
But this week’s Philharmonic program joins high-profile performances of Perry’s works, like the Minnesota Orchestra’s performance earlier this month of “A Short Piece for Orchestra,” that are attracting much-needed attention to his legacy at a critical time. Toppin said that if Perry is played by prominent ensembles, “that will help influence the field.”
The centenary of Perry’s birth will be celebrated on March 25, 2024. That month, the Bright Shiny Things label will release a world premiere recording of his Violin Concerto, featuring Curtis Stewart as soloist, under the baton of James Blachly with the Experiential Orchestra. .
In the Violin Concerto, Blachly said, “the scope of imagination he puts into what he can extract from a very small set of musical materials is miraculous.” In an email, Stewart described it as a test of “the limits of musical/emotional content in all its permutations.”
Perry finished the concerto in 1968, but until recently it lacked a ready-to-perform edition. Composer Roger Zahab spent 45 years reconstructing the score from various copies and sets of revisions, beginning with a piano reduction he received in 1977. “It was very difficult to walk away from the piece for too long,” he recalled. “Perry was obsessively meticulous in many ways.”
Audiences who hear Bridges sing “Stabat Mater” may learn, or remember, that Perry’s brilliant creativity makes the fight for her inclusion in classical music worthwhile and necessary.
“Programming Julia Perry is about making space,” Bridges said. “Not just to check boxes, but because we want to keep performing beautiful music.”