By David Templeton | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine
“I think it’s really interesting that William Grant Still and Florence Price went to the same elementary school,” says Karla Donehew Perez, first violinist of the Grammy-winning Catalyst Quartet. Price, the legendary Black composer and pianist, was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1887. Still—who would come to be known as the Dean of African American Composers—was born in Woodville, Mississippi, in 1895, but moved soon after to Little Rock, where he had more in common with Price than just attending the same school eight years apart.
“They actually both ended up studying with this incredible schoolteacher who’d gone off to the east coast to attend some famous school, and came back just to bring up these kids, including these two incredible minds,” continues Donehew Perez. “There is an age difference, obviously, so they didn’t overlap much at school, but they knew each other, and their families knew each other. I think that’s really cool, and it’s one of a whole bunch of things we’ve learned while working on the Uncovered Project.”
Donehew Perez is calling this morning from Atlanta, Georgia, where the New York–based quartet recently performed at Clayton State University’s Spivey Hall, followed by a couple of days of residency work. They will be performing at Agnes Scott College’s Presser Hall in Decatur, Georgia, and will then head home. Founded in 2010 by the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, a social justice nonprofit dedicated to changing the lives of young people by championing the power and importance of diversity in the arts, the quartet also includes violinist Abi Fayette, violist Paul Laraia, and cellist Karlos Rodriguez.
The Catalyst’s first album, Bach/Gould Project—presenting the first ever four-voiced version of the Goldberg Variations for a string quartet along with Glenn Gould’s only published composition, his String Quartet Op. 1—instantly established the group’s reputation for bravely showcasing lesser-known compositions and composers and turning heads with unusual approaches to well-known pieces. In 2018, the Catalyst won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album with Dreams and Daggers, a two-CD album with vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant. In 2021, after years of preparation, the ensemble released Uncovered Vol. 1, featuring works by British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the first in its planned four-album Uncovered Project, centering on the music of Black composers whose work, while often well-known at the time it was created, is now rarely or never programmed in contemporary concert halls. A year later, Uncovered Vol. 2 was released, featuring compositions by Florence Price.
In March of this year, Uncovered Vol. 3 appeared, this recording presenting three string quartets by three composers—George Walker’s String Quartet No. 1, “Lyric”; Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s String Quartet No. 1, “Calvary”; and William Grant Still’s Lyric String Quartette, with movements (subtitled “Musical Portraits of Three Friends”) mysteriously named The Sentimental One, The Quiet One, and The Jovial One.
The seeds of the Uncovered Project were initially planted in 2010, shortly after the quartet was formed, while the Catalyst was assisting the Sphinx Organization in running its performance academy at the Cleveland Institute of Music and Curtis Institute of Music. “We thought it was important to have inclusive programming for the students in all things, in the faculty recitals as well as in what the kids were playing,” Donehew Perez says. “So not only were students hearing Beethoven, Mendelssohn—they were hearing great pieces by composers of color. Our colleagues kept bringing in these pieces, new and old, and we brought in some ourselves, and that’s how we began to accumulate this collection of works.”
The higher the stacks of compositions grew, the more convinced the quartet was that these works needed a wider audience. One way the Catalyst could address the problem, they realized, was to start recording some of the pieces and to give them the attention and respect they deserve. “There was all of this incredible repertoire that we’d been living around and thinking about, and we were going, ‘Well, that’s a great piece. And that’s a great piece. Why don’t people program these?’” says Donehew Perez. “After a while, you come to the realization that the reason is either because there are no existing recordings, or the recordings that do exist are not of very good quality. That’s just unacceptable for such great music. We decided we wanted to focus on historically important Black composers, composers who were important in their time, and for whatever reason, their music has not stayed in the repertoire. We ultimately chose these composers.”
The project would take money, of course, and at first, the people that the Catalyst Quartet approached were not interested. “They generally thought it was a good and noble idea, but they were a little bit skeptical, and fundraising was difficult,” she says. “We actually had to fight really hard to get that first Uncovered album recorded and out into the world.”
Part of the problem, of course, was that much of the music they’d selected was virtually unknown, and producing a studio recording of music with next to no recognition value is a risky proposition in the modern world. Despite such difficulties, the quartet continued to fundraise for the project, all the while slowly unearthing more little-known or forgotten pieces that collectively took their breath away.
This musical archeology presented a number of unique challenges, requiring a combination of googling and guesswork. Some pieces that they had already become aware of only existed as recordings, with no published scores available, and sometimes the recordings were not particularly good. In cases where great recordings existed, often there were only one or two in existence. With pieces of music that existed as scores, there were sometimes obvious editing mistakes, requiring a bit of additional sleuthing or experimentation to correct.
Those types of challenges have arisen with every volume of the Uncovered Project so far. For example, with Vol. 2, the Florence Price album, the scores they were working with sometimes showed clear mistakes. As Price died in 1953, she couldn’t be consulted. “Florence Price had a copyist,” Donehew Perez says. “We all make mistakes—we’re all human—and that’s true of Florence Price’s copyist. It’s clear that when you play this one piece, when you hear it, you can tell that one note is off by one accidental, or the viola part is written in treble clef, even though the clef was the alto clef. So we would say, ‘That sounds weird, Paul. Why don’t you try playing it as if it were a treble clef,’ and suddenly the music sounded amazing. There’s a lot of trial and error.”
The more time they spent with a specific composer’s work, however, the easier it became to sort out such mysteries. “Once you learn a composer’s language—because they all have a very clear way of expressing their own musical language—you get a better and better sense of what the composer was going for,” says Donehew Perez.
Of Walker’s piece on the new album, the String Quartet No. 1, “Lyric,” Donehew Perez says she has come to deeply appreciate the harmonic language within which the composer’s most recognizable work—the middle movement, often performed alone as the Lyric for Strings—originally existed. That movement, which Walker did publish as a separate work, has become fairly well known, especially over the last few years, but many don’t realize it comes from a quartet as deserving of attention as its most famous movement.
“On either side of this incredibly gorgeous, hauntingly beautiful piece,” she says, “are these two quite emotionally tense, and kind of crunchy, harmonically dense movements, and I think it’s really powerful and interesting to see where that comes from.”
For Donehew Perez, Perkinson’s “Calvary” quartet has become a personal favorite. “He led such an amazing life,” she says of Perkinson, who was born in 1932 and died in 2004. “He had his hands in so many different kinds of music making, and even other art disciplines, like all of his work with Dance Theatre Harlem. So, you can really hear in his piece all of these different influences. His use of rhythm and textures and layering is just really unique, and very much his own. It’s just a phenomenal work, and so stunning and jaw-dropping. It’s another one of those compositions that you hear and say, ‘Why isn’t this being played?’”
The piece by Still, probably the most famous composer whose work has been recorded in the Uncovered Project, has also become a favorite. “I’ve always been a fan of his music,” Donehew Perez says. “His lyricism and the way he used melody is just so incredibly beautiful, and I find this piece to be a real gem. It’s so intimate.”
Along with the hours required to locate the pieces used in the Uncovered Project, and then fill in the missing pieces, the Catalyst Quartet did significant research into the lives of the composers who produced the works. “That’s been a huge part of it,” Donehew Perez says. “We want to know where they were, what they were doing, what they were listening to, how they were living their lives—because it does affect the interpretation. Knowing how these pieces were played in their time is really important, and it informs the kind of phrasing that we try to do with their pieces.”
Now that the Catalyst has released three albums in the project, they’ve found that the initial skepticism has vanished. “The first one set the stage,” Donehew Perez says, “and since then, every time we get ready to release a new one, people get really excited.” The fourth and final album, now in the planning and funding stage, will be all of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ quartets. “There are three sets of six, and one set lives in a library in Europe, so we are working on that,” explains Donehew Perez. “It’s going to be a long journey, recording all of that. It will take seven days of recording, which doubles what these other albums have cost so far. We hope we can record it in a year and then release it six months later.”
Asked if the passion project has had the effect it was designed to have—to expand awareness of this music and inspire programmers to put it in front of audiences—Donehew Perez is quick to point out that any recent or future success that the works of Perkinson, Walker, Still, Price, and the others are having belongs almost entirely to the composers and the artistic brilliance of the works themselves.
“That said, I do think it’s having an impact,” she says. “I’ve noticed more programming of this music. I do think the Uncovered Project has helped, and I hope it continues. I’m just incredibly proud that we are able to put this together, because these are truly extraordinary string quartets by very important Black American composers. And now, more people will know how incredible their music is.”