The Music of Julia Perry Finds New Champions on the Centenary Celebration of Her Birth

PUBLIQuartet violinist Curtis Stewart and Experiential Orchestra founder James Blachly team up for a world premiere recording

By David Templeton | From the March-April 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

When Grammy-nominated violinist-composer Curtis Stewart was younger, he would often listen to classical music on the radio, letting the lush symphonies and compact quartets carry his thoughts and feelings away. Already enamored of the works of great composers, and eager to absorb as much knowledge as he could, he would often cover his ears during the DJ’s introduction of the piece, actively avoiding learning the composer’s name before giving himself over to the composition itself. 


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“I would try to figure out which composer it was all on my own,” Stewart says, speaking from his apartment in New York. “But the real reason I would do that, close my ears when the DJ was talking, is that I’d realized, early on, that knowing ahead of time if I was listening to Tchaikovsky or Bach or whoever would change how I listened to it. It changes the feeling you have. It changes the sense of exploration.”

That sense of exploration has always been at the heart of Stewart’s professional career and perfectly underscores the feeling of excitement and discovery in his newest recording project. Titled American Counterpoints, the album is a co-creation with James Blachly, the Grammy-winning founder of Experiential Orchestra, and features the music of Julia Perry (1924–79) and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932–2004). The central focus of the album is Perry’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, in which Stewart collaborates with Blachly and Experiential Orchestra to present the world premiere recording of the complex piece.

“It was a massive labor of love and heart,” says Stewart. “And it was hard! That’s a hard piece!”

American Counterpoints album cover

Stewart—born in Helsinki, Finland—earned degrees in mathematics and violin performance at the University of Rochester and the Eastman School of Music, respectively, before earning a master’s degree in music education at New York’s Lehman College. As a performer, he has soloed at some of the world’s most esteemed venues, including Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, and Lincoln Center, and appeared at the 2022 Grammy Awards, where he was nominated for his 2021 album Of Power, grabbing attention with his solo violin rendition of “Isn’t She Lovely,” by Stevie Wonder, with whom he’s performed at Madison Square Garden. Stewart founded the string ensemble PUBLIQuartet in 2010, has taught music at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in New York and at the Juilliard School, and serves as the artistic director of New York’s American Composers Orchestra.

It was through musician-composer Jannina Norpoth, the other violinist in PUBLIQuartet, that Stewart first encountered the music of Julia Perry, a Black composer who was highly regarded in Europe but struggled for success at home in America, dying in poverty at 55 after battling a physical ailment following a stroke that left her partially paralyzed. Of the many compositions she left behind, the majority have remained mostly unknown and unplayed until recent years, only now—as the March 25 centenary of her birth approaches—beginning to achieve the renown she deserves.


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Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson
Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Photo: Cedille Records.

“Jannina had been working on another project that brought her to Julia Perry,” Stewart explains. “We were moving through her music and trying to figure out what we could do to arrange things for our string quartet, and we were looking at the ‘Prelude for Piano,’ which is just so beautiful. I mean, the harmony in that movement is so astounding, and for being so short, there is so much harmonic information in it.” The string version that appears on the new album was arranged by Roger Zahab, something of an expert on the works of Julia Perry.

“My second encounter with Perry was when I was working on a project with Alicia Hall Moran, and the Pastoral for flute and string sextet was one of the options for our programming,” continues Stewart. “Ever since, I get super excited whenever I hear her name. Then James Blachly emailed me, in May of 2022, and said, ‘I have this great project! We’re thinking about this Perry concerto that’s never been recorded!’ For me, it was an instantaneous yes!”

As Stewart recalls it, he had just done his big performance at the Grammys. “I had worked with Blachly before,” Stewart says, “and played in his orchestra several times, so we’ve known each other for over a decade, but when he saw my Grammy performance, he put the two pieces together—me and Julia Perry.” 

Blachly, who has been championing Perry’s work for some time, had been corresponding with Roger Zahab, who did the most recent edit to bring her Concerto for Violin and Orchestra into publishing shape. “Julia Perry was dealing with so much at the end of her life; she had been working on this concerto for so long,” says Stewart. “Because of her medical maladies, some the musical manuscripts were rather illegible, so Roger has been mining that material to clarify the score.”

With American Counterpoint, the idea was that by pairing Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson and Perry together, it might illuminate the notion that there is still so much untapped material to find in American musical composition, not just in terms of composers of color, but American classical music of all kinds, music that players like Stewart and Blachly can uncover and connect to. Asked to compare the two artists, Stewart begins with Perkinson before moving on to Perry, offering examples from each piece on the album, discussed in order. 

Curtis Stewart with violin
Curtis Stewart. Photo: Titilayo Ayangade.

“First of all, I just love the idea of Perkinson, just the idea of him,” he says. “A masterful composer—stylistically, harmonically—who had such an interesting way with orchestration. He occupies one side of the way I see several composers of color in modern times dealing with their situation. Style was a massive consideration for Perkinson, pitting neo-Baroque works against the blues, blending very contemporary harmonies from the classical world with very contemporary harmonies from the jazz world. His work was really mixing and matching, but it always has his own voice rather than just coming off as a pastiche.”

What he loves about Perkinson’s “Louisiana Blues Strut,” he says, is the piece’s mixture of virtuosity and authentic blues. “The way it is notated, it’s actually very open-ended,” Stewart says. “There’s not a ton of articulation and rhythmic indicators in the two-page score, but there is still so much information there.


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“As for Perry,” he continues, “she kind of buckled down and went deep into the expressionist zone, and just decided to lock into a very abstract and intellectual way of exploring her musical material. The Prelude for Strings, the first of Perry’s works to appear on the album, is such a rich harmonic slice of what she was exploring.”

The next piece on American Counterpoint is Perkinson’s Sinfonietta No. 1. “The Sinfonietta is another example of his interest in stylistic playfulness, as well as just his knowledge of writing for strings,” Stewart points out. “You can hear little touches of the blues, and little touches of jazz in there that make it kind of singular.” 

Of Perry’s Symphony in One Movement for Violas and Basses, Stewart acknowledges the composer’s interest in giving a voice to instruments that rarely get to carry the melody. “There isn’t even a cello in this—it’s really just violas and basses,” he says. “I’d love to know the history behind this. Did someone commission this? Or was it her idea, and what did people say when she proposed it? But I think this shows something about what Perry was looking for in the music she composed, challenging us to listen to melody and harmony in a different way. By putting it into the voices of these instruments we rarely ask to carry a melody in a piece, we get to go on a journey and see what happens.”

Symphony in One Movement for Violas and Basses

Of Perry’s hymn, “Ye, Who Seek the Truth,” arranged for strings by Jannina Norpoth, Stewart says, “The setting is very simple in a very beautiful way, and it shines another light on Perry’s approach to harmony. It is not thorny. It is very pristine.”

Perry’s enormous concerto, on the other hand, is quite the opposite.


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James Blachly with conducting baton
James Blachly. Photo: Allison Stock.

“It is so thorny,” Stewart says with a laugh. “There are so many themes moving through it. It’s actually very ergonomic on the instrument, but she’s pushing the limits of jumping from register to register. And it’s so harmonically dense. Every idea goes through 12 keys. It’s really difficult music. I always try to analyze music from the composer’s point of view, so I can feel excited about it in that creative way, but I was initially stuck on the repetitiveness of the piece. And I finally realized that it really is about finding all the colors in a theme, exploring all the permutations, all the emotions, all the sinews. It’s a very determined piece of music.

“I love that we are showing the different sides of Julia Perry with this album,” he adds. “Together, the pieces show the complexity, the simplicity, the richness, the religiousness of this composer, all of her range, all of her different sides.”

American Counterpoints concludes with Stewart’s own piece, “We Who Seek,” a sharp departure into modern electronic mixing. “In ‘We Who Seek,’ I’ve taken samples of all the pieces on the album and kind of thrown them together, along with a paraphrase of ‘Ye, Who Seek the Truth,’ plus some spoken word. All the different ways that Perry and Perkinson bring value to me as a musician, I’ve tried to capture that in this piece. People either love it or hate it, but it means a lot to me. It’s my way of talking to the experience of playing all of this music, giving voice to these composers that have really become significant for me.” 

Stewart will have a chance to celebrate the music of Perry in a big way when he, Blachly, and Experiential Orchestra present her violin concerto at the Julia Perry Centenary Celebration and Festival to be held from March 13–16 in New York City.

“I can’t wait to hear people playing different versions of her music all in one place,” says Stewart. “The first day, I will be playing with PUBLIQuartet, doing some arrangements of her work. These are reimaginings of her compositions. I know, we’re only discovering her music and suddenly we’re reimagining it, but it’s a way to engage with her music, and appreciate what it is, what it was, and what it could be.”