WEST STOCKBRIDGE — Chelsea Randall makes her Berkshire debut in The Foundry's intimate black-box theater on June 25 with “George Walker at 100,” performing solo works by underrepresented 20th century Black composers.
The program is centered around the centennial of Pulitzer Prize-winner Walker’s birth, and includes compositions by Dorothy Rudd Moore, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Regina Harris Baiocchi, and Randall herself.
“As a pianist, I draw attention to unheard of and rarely programed work,” said Randall by phone from Brooklyn, N.Y., where she was raised and now resides.
“The [musical] canon represents influences from different people and cultures. For music and art to move forward, we have to be bold and take risks, actively research and promote the work of artists and composers that have been excluded and deserve their rightful place next to the other masters. The canon is only enriched and enhanced by inclusion and diversity.”
For her performance at The Foundry, Randall has curated a carefully researched program of six works.
“The first two pieces, “Sonata No. 4” (1984) and “Guido’s Hand: Five Pieces for Piano” (1986) are by Walker, who was a trailblazing Black composer. I’m centering the entire concert around the 100th anniversary of his birth on June 27. He died in 2018 at age 96," she said. “Walker wrote over 100 compositions from piano to orchestra, voice, solo instruments. He was the first Black composer to win a Pulitzer Prize, the first Black graduate of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, among many other firsts. He was also an accomplished pianist, whose career was halted because of huge barriers he faced trying to break into an exclusionary white field.
“The pieces are examples of his later style which makes use of atonality and has an almost improvisatory quality that is harmonically complex. They have [his] hallmarks of clarity and elegance, and very subtly woven-in elements of spirituals, popular music and folk tunes.”
Randall added, “The Moore piece is a pretty monumental set of piano variations called “Dream and Variations” (1974). It’s one of her very few compositions for piano, she primarily composed vocal music. It has been performed literally a handful of times. She had an extraordinary life, and was one of the founders of the Society of Black Composers in the 1960s that worked to amplify Black voices and compositions and promote Black art of the time.”
Also on the program are “Azuretta" (2000) by Regina Harris Baiocchi and “Two Part Inventions for Piano” (1993) by Jonathan Bailey Holland.
“Because these are quintessentially American composers, their work contains a melting pot of influences, from Western Classical to elements of jazz, world music, folk song, spirituals. There’s a lot of cross pollination,” Randall said.
She will conclude the program with her own short composition, “Flights” (2018).
“It evolved out of a time of calm and contemplation [when] I was listening to a lot of French impressionistic music alongside 20th-century French composer Messiaen,” she explained. “I wanted to end with something that had a little levity, pointing towards a sense of lightness and hope.”
She will speak about each piece before she plays them, offering insight into the unfamiliar works. She aims for an open dialogue with the audience, she said, “encouraging questions afterwards so we can get a conversation going.”
Randall’s performance at The Foundry kicks off her new project titled “American Mavericks,” dedicated to modern Black American composers.
“I’ve been working with so many incredible composers I’m learning about every day as I research deeper. New emerging composers as well, not just well established. I’m also going to commission new work.”
“I’m taking the project across the US, with stops in New York, California, Baltimore, and hopefully abroad next year. I want to break down barriers between audience and performer, to focus on more intimate moments where I can connect with the audience.”
Randall doesn’t have to look far to source her enduring passions for music and literature.
“My grandmother, Marguerite Randall, was a pianist, the only musician in the entire family. Everyone else is either a writer or an editor. She introduced me to wonderful music early on, and gifted me her old piano. She was an incredible woman and role model, one of the first Black women to graduate from the University of Michigan music department. She was uncompromising in her vision of what she wanted to do, even with the world preventing her from having the career she truly desired.”
“My great-uncle was Dudley Randall, a pioneering poet and one of the first Black publishers of Black poetry in the U.S. He’s been a big influence on me in literature as well as music.”
Randall, who is also an editor and writer, cites her unconventional educational background as informing her artistic practice.
“I have a degree in English Literature from N.Y.U. and, although I attended conservatory, my life didn’t go in the traditional linear route. I always had extra-musical interests, writing and art and other cultures that weren’t taught in [more] narrowly focused conservatory.”
“I studied at London’s Royal College of Music, traveled to Spain, met incredible musicians and played with ensembles. I spent a summer at Clare College, Cambridge, studying Scottish and Irish poetry.”
It was a time of learning and exploration early in her career, she said, that laid the foundation for when she returned to America.
Among other projects, Randall is artistic director and cofounder of New York concert series, EXTENSITY, started in 2021.
“We present a wide spectrum of overlooked and underrepresented artists and musicians and composers, from emerging to established, and put them in a broader dialogue of western classical music. We just wrapped our second season which was a full month devoted to living women composers.”
Musical opportunities in Brooklyn are fantastic, she said, “especially if you’re starting up projects and want to collaborate with other musicians. This is the place to launch something new. Audiences are so responsive, curious and interested in going outside their comfort zone.”
As a performer and listener, she espouses non-traditional programming, experiencing classical music outside of a formal concert hall.
“I really admire [The Foundry’s] mission of presenting diverse styles and genres, shining a light on emerging artists and overlooked works by an incredible range of people. This speaks to me very closely as an artist. The Foundry is welcoming, accessible and informal, and able to reach a broader spectrum of people.”
Since the venue opened in 2019, Artistic Director Amy Brentano has programmed a wide range of musical genres alongside dance, comedy and more in the air-conditioned black-box theater. “We’ve heard classical musicians really like the acoustics in there,” Brentano said by phone.
“One of the first concerts was the Del Sol Quartet from California,” she recalled. “Bringing in out-of-town artists helps keep our programming fresh and independent.”
“We’ve had a lot of classical music with our emerging artist series,” she added. “I love having a mix of more seasoned professionals with young up-and-coming musicians.”
Her interest in the genre has grown thanks to the influence of her son Joseph Weinberg, who plays classical double bass; he will attend Juilliard this fall. “Though I’ve always enjoyed classical music aesthetically, I’ve developed a different ear for it now that I'm more informed,” Brentano said.
“I love that [Randall’s] giving a platform to these composers. She’s so accessible, I think there will be a dialog not only through her playing but also if people have questions they want to ask. There are so many composers of color, and yet we’re just starting to find out about them in the broader world.”