Shining a Light on Diversity in Classical Music

Pianist and musicologist Samantha Ege will perform work by Black women composers in a Discovery Concert for the Harriman-Jewell Series May 15 at the Folly Theater. (www.samanthaege.com)

At the Folly, pianist Samantha Ege performs works by underknown Black women composers

Pianist and musicologist Samantha Ege brings to life the works of women whose history had long been relegated to the footnotes of classical music. But, through advocates like Ege, they are steadily getting their due as pioneers, history-makers and practitioners of classical music.

“The women I write about are so multifaceted. It feels like there are a million ways to tell their stories!” said Ege.

Ege [Eh-geh] makes her Kansas City debut at the Folly Theater, with a Harriman-Jewell Series free Discovery Concert May 15.

“It’s important that we bring artists like Dr. Samantha Ege to Kansas City who are helping to shine a light on the greater diversity in classical music,” said Clark Morris, executive and artistic director of the series.

Her program, like her recently released album, focuses on composers of the early 20th-century Black Renaissance era, which was “a time of cultural rebirth and social change,” said Ege. That era, during the interwar years, reflected certain stylistic influences and aesthetics, similar to the Baroque era or Romantic era, she said. It was created, in part, by a strong network of highly trained and motivated Black women.

Ege grew up miles and decades away, in Surrey, England. She started playing piano as a toddler, learning to play by ear. She would play along with songs on the radio and TV, anticipating chord progressions and improvising her own ideas.

Formal lessons followed, leading her eventually to study at the University of Bristol and McGill University in Montreal, and earn a Ph.D. at the University of York. She is currently the Lord Crewe Junior Research Fellow in Music at Lincoln College, University of Oxford.

As she was growing up, her music studies focused chiefly on white, European, male composers. She enjoyed playing rags by Scott Joplin, but those weren’t encouraged. It wasn’t until she was 19 that she was introduced to the concept of women as composers. First, European sisters Nadia and Lili Boulanger, then Americans Florence Price and Margaret Bonds.

As a Black British musician, it was “absolutely transformative,” said Ege. “In that moment, I found my place as a young Black woman in classical music.”

“How incredible to learn that African American women nurtured a whole era of classical artistry during the interwar years.”

Samantha Ege

“It was eye-opening,” she said. “Women composers hadn’t been a part of my education before.”

One of the composers she performs and writes about frequently is Florence Price, who is experiencing a second renaissance, with her works being published, performed and studied academically. (In 2009, a cache of Price’s manuscripts was discovered, sparking renewed interest in her history and works.) In 1933, Price was the first Black woman to have a symphony premiered by a major American orchestra. In 1939, Marian Anderson closed out her pivotal Lincoln Memorial performance with Price’s arrangement of “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.”

But for Ege, Price is just the “tip of the iceberg when it comes to Black women in classical music.”

Ege’s research and repertoire include works by Price, but also Margaret Bonds, Nora Douglas Holt, Zenobia Powell Perry, Betty Jackson King and a host of others, many in Chicago.

“It’s the story of community, for me. How incredible to learn that African American women nurtured a whole era of classical artistry during the interwar years,” she said. It was this community that facilitated Price’s history-making debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

“What unites the composers on my program is not just their race, or their gender, but the era that they were operating in, the communities that they belonged to, the message that they put out in the world,”
said Ege.

These women were not only musicians but dedicated teachers, writers, advocates and leaders.

“This story doesn’t get told enough, because to tell this story is to suggest that there is a classical music history that places Black women at the center rather than the usual suspects.”

“Without scholar artists like Dr. Ege, we would be ignorant to the beautiful breadth of our shared cultural heritage,” said Morris. “We are grateful for this incredible opportunity and indebted to Dr. Ege for her scholarly contributions and for bringing music to us that has long been underrepresented in our lives.”

(Ege’s concert) includes work by Kansas City, Kansas-born Nora Douglas Holt . . . the first African American person to earn a master’s degree in composition in the United States (at the Chicago Musical College).

Along with a selection of works from this cohort, Ege performs the U.S. premiere of Price’s Fantasie Nègre No. 3 in f minor (which she reconstructed from manuscripts), and the U.S. premiere of the original version of the Fantasie Nègre no. 4 in b minor. The work, from 1929, was dedicated to pianist and composer Margaret Bonds, Price’s student and fellow Chicagoan.

She also includes work by Kansas City, Kansas-born Nora Douglas Holt, who led a fascinating life in Chicago, New York City, Paris and Los Angeles. Holt graduated valedictorian from the now-defunct Western University in Kansas, the first HBCU west of the Mississippi River, renowned for its music program. She was the first African American person to earn a master’s degree in composition in the United States (at the Chicago Musical College).

Sadly, nearly all of Holt’s estimated 200 works were stolen while she was living in Europe. Ege performs Holt’s only existing work: “Negro Dance.” Written in 1921, it is a short, rag-inspired work which, Ege explains, uses African American antebellum rural dance music.

But there was so much more to Holt.

“I’ve written about her as a music theorist, radio host, music critic” (Holt was the first African American person invited into the Music Critics Circle of New York, nominated by Kansas City-native Virgil Thomson), “nightclub singer, composition student and more,” said Ege. “I embrace opportunities to explore these different angles in order to present the rich tapestry that was her life.”

Ege infuses her programming with a strong degree of storytelling, she said.

“As a performer, I want to listen closely to the composers’ intentions, and I want my interpretations to evolve as I get to know their voices more intimately,” said Ege.

“I want to recreate for my listeners and readers the excitement and inspiration I felt when I first learned about these composers.”

Samantha Ege performs a Discovery Concert for the Harriman-Jewell Series May 15 at 5 p.m. at the Folly Theater. Tickets are free but require advanced reservations. For more information visit hjseries.org.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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