March 20, 2024

“Celebration of Black Music” Festival at Rider Honors Composer Julia Perry

CENTENNIAL OF A COMPOSER: The Westminster Jubilee Singers and the Westminster Chapel Choir will take part in special concerts devoted to the music of Westminster alumna Julia Perry this weekend.

By Anne Levin

When Westminster Choir College of Rider University Professor Vinroy D. Brown Jr. began thinking about holding a second annual “Celebration of Black Music” festival with the Westminster Jubilee Singers, it didn’t take long for him to come up with a focus.

Monday, March 25 marks the centennial of the late Julia Perry, a groundbreaking composer considered to be one of Westminster’s most distinguished alumni. Centering the second festival around her was kind of a no-brainer.

“Julia Perry was a student of our founder, John Finley Williamson,” said Brown, an adjunct professor of sacred music and a member of the Baccalaureate Honors program faculty. “We house the Julia Perry archives in our library. March is Women’s History Month. Honoring her was the obvious choice, for so many reasons.”

Brown leads the festival Saturday and Sunday, March 23 and 24, at Gill Chapel on the Rider University campus, where Westminster was moved from Princeton in 2020. On Saturday at 7:30 p.m., the ensemble My Sister’s Keeper will perform a recital. The music continues on Sunday at 3 p.m., when the Westminster Jubilee Singers and Westminster Chapel Choir perform “The Passion According to Julia Perry.” Brown conducts the Jubilee Singers, while Marion Jacob leads the Chapel Choir. Mezzo soprano Patrice P. Eaton is the soloist. In addition to the concerts, the celebration will include lectures and workshops.

“Black music is no stranger to Westminster Choir College,” said Brown. “Last year we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of George Walker, who was born in Washington, D.C., but spent most of his life and career in New Jersey. He was known in the choral world as the first African American who won the Pulitzer Prize for music.”

That first festival materialized after Brown was asked to write an article about Walker for a professional journal. “I wanted to figure out a way to explore his music, and that became the impetus for the festival,” he said.

Perry is unique “in that she writes in a neo-classical and yet very contemporary style,” Brown said. “Some of the music is atonal, or minimalist. The work she is most known for is the solo Stabat Mater, which is very atonal. In that time period, to see African American composers writing in this style was not the norm. And Black women composers in this style was definitely not the norm.”

Perry’s music was not well received during her lifetime. She died at the age of 51 after a series of strokes. “We lost a lot of her music, unfortunately, due to the mismanagement of her estate,” Brown said. “But some of the pieces in the festival have not been heard for decades. It’s nice that we get to do her choral works, because other celebrations of her are usually about her solo works. And we are collaborating with the Westminster Chapel Choir, who are also presenting some of her solo vocal music as an ensemble.”

Sunday is the start of Holy Week, creating an additional theme for the festival. “A lot of the choral works we are performing have to do with the Passion [the story of the crucifixion of Jesus],” Brown said. “The program was curated very specifically to create a narrative around the Passion. ‘The Passion According to Julia Perry’ is a play on the passions of Bach and Perry’s own thoughts around composing and beautiful music. There are a lot of double meanings that we will explore throughout the concert.”

Brown is hopeful that the annual festival will continue into the future.

“The Celebration of Black Music has gotten a lot of support from the administration. Moving forward, I do envision it being a standard kind of program with the Choir College, hopefully with a different emphasis each year,” he said. “There is so much more we can do.”

Westminster and Rider merged in 1992, and Rider has been trying to sell Westminster’s Princeton campus since 2018. In ensuing years, Westminster’s student body has decreased significantly, and the future of the Princeton property has yet to be decided. Despite the changes, Brown remains dedicated.

“Beautiful music is still being made at Westminster Choir College,” he said. “This festival and the work of the Westminster Jubilee Singers are a testament to this incredible work. It makes me happy, as a teacher and an alum, that the work is still happening and the music is still being made.”

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