Composer's work purely, simply good

January 12, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Most black classical composers have to wait until Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday to hear their music. Indeed, one of Jonathan Holland's pieces will be performed tonight when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gives its annual King memorial concert. But the precocious 20-year-old composer has already moved out of the ghetto -- admittedly, one built of good intentions -- that confines most classical compositions by African-Americans to such special occasions.

His "Martha's Waltz," which the BSO will perform tonight, has been performed in Carnegie Hall by the Detroit Symphony and will be repeated next season by the BSO on a regular subscription program. Holland has also just received a commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra and the St. Louis Symphony for a large-scale work.

"I hope that one day all of us will be able to get beyond the issue of race," the composer says. "Because I'm black and a composer, everything I write is supposed to reflect jazz or spirituals," Holland says. "Even though I love that music, I won't do it -- not yet, at least -- simply because I'm expected to."

"Martha's Waltz," which was inspired by a scene in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf," does not reflect the so-called "Black Experience" in its use of melody, harmony or rhythm. It's a superbly-crafted piece that shows a mature sense of instrumentation, a seductive and subtle sense of rhythm, and a rare gift for melody.

Holland entered the work last year in the Detroit Symphony's annual Unisys African-American Composers Forum. He did not win first prize, but Detroit Symphony music director Neeme Jarvi thought so highly of "Martha's Waltz" that he programmed it when the orchestra made its annual appearance in Carnegie Hall. He has also performed it with foreign, as well as American, orchestras.

"I couldn't have been luckier," says Holland.

The composer -- who is still a student at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute -- was born in Flint, Mich., to a high school teacher father and a social worker mother. A talent for the trumpet gained him admission to the Interlochen Arts Academy, where he spent his high school years. Frustration with the trumpet, he says, led him to take a composition class. To his astonishment, his first effort won the school's prize for best composition.

The satisfaction he derived from composing made him decide to bypass college and attend Curtis, where he studies with Ned Rorem, a composer almost as celebrated for his tell-all memoirs as for his music.

"He can be brutally honest, but he's interesting and I've learned a lot from him," Holland says. While "Martha's Waltz" resembles a Rorem piece no more than it does black popular music, its not-a-note-wasted craft suggests something of the older composer's economical lyricism.

"In the arts, you should be free to express what you want," he says. "The best thing I can do is to write the best music I can."


What: Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: Meyerhoff Hall

Tickets: Adults, $5; children, free

Call: (410) 783-8000

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