-Ulysses Owens Jr., music director and drums
Hope can be a powerful force. Maybe there’s no actual magic in it, but when you know what you hope for most and hold it like a light within you, you can make things happen, almost like magic. — Laini Taylor
The human voice is considered the earliest musical instrument, and the drum is regarded as one of the oldest instruments. Both instruments are essential to communication and the formation of society and civilization. Simply put, without the drum or the voice there is uncertainty about how far humanity would have advanced. This truth speaks to the power of J’nai Bridges’ operatic voice and Ulysses Owens Jr.’s powerful drums creating a musical partnership through their Chamber project, Notes on Hope.
Notes on Hope spans the musical spectrum, from exploring works of Duke Ellington to reviving classic art songs once performed by opera matriarchs Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price and Kathleen Battle, who all have since passed the torch to Bridges to carry into the 21st century. Other instrumental moments will highlight Owens’ musical direction and prowess as a jazz drummer with his stellar ensemble. The ensemble will also feature the works of lesser-known jazz composer luminaries such as Geri Allen, whose music fits eloquently within the thematic focus of hope.
With regard to their culture and heritage as African American artists, it is important to note that there is a greater subtext here between Owens and Bridges. They are both utilizing this moment to highlight Black contributors in the classical and opera realm who have been often overlooked. Their artistry will shed light on beautiful works by composers like Florence Price, who truly embodies the adage, “because of them, we are.”
The program is divided into three segments. The first, Divine Hope, focuses on the power of creation and is the conduit between hope and faith. This section begins with The Lord’s Prayer as a devotional musical moment to cleanse the palette and center on the intention for the evening, which is reverence.
Following The Lord’s Prayer, Duke Ellington, who is considered to be one of the greatest American composers, will be featured with his composition “Heaven.” Ellington happened to have composed several compositions for soprano voice dating back to the early 1940s. It is important to note that Kay Davis and Adelaide Hall were trained classical African American singers who were unable to gain work because of racial barriers, so through Ellington’s compositions they were able to perform. To conclude the Divine Hope segment, the ensemble will perform the classic spiritual There Is a Balm in Gilead, which references an Old Testament scripture that speaks to the concept a spiritual medicine that is able to heal sinners. This spiritual has been performed by many great opera singers and is a spiritual rite of passage that only a voice like Bridges’ can beautifully deliver and serve as a balm for the audience.
The second segment is titled The Crux of Hope, which references the most essential shift and point of the process: where difficult matters must be addressed so that hope is a possibility. This segment begins with the composition Skin by prolific pianist and composer, the late Geri Allen, who broke many barriers for women in the jazz industry. This composition is very textural and features Mondavi Center 6 mondaviarts.org the band. It allows listeners to unearth the reality of skin, texture, color, race and creed, which unfolds beautifully.
DuParc’s L’invitation au voyage, composed in 1970, is a setting of two of three verses of the Symbolist poet Baudelaire’s famous poem describing his love of the countryside in Holland. During this time, Baudelaire was in love with actress Marie Daubrun, and this poem describes a mystical trip growing in his mind, which finds them both in an exotic and perfect world.
Je te veux (I Want You), composed by Erik Satie with a text from Henry Pacory, has a sensual undertone because of the intimate relationship between Satie and Paulette Darty, which this song beautifully displays. It is a popular song rendered by Jessye Norman, Cecile McLorin Salvant, and many other brilliant vocalists. However, the arrangement performed in Notes on Hope is a unique adaptation featuring unique instrumentation. La Vie en rose (Life in Happy Hues) also translated as “Life seen through rose-colored glasses” is a favorite of Bridges’ to sing her adaptation of Edith Piaf’s classic lyric.
The second segment will conclude with a beautiful Brazilian composition called Boi Bumba, composed by Valdemar Henrique who is from the north of Brazil and is inspired by Amazonian folklore as well as Indigenous and northeastern Afro-Brazilian rhythms. Bridges and Owens fell in love with a recording of Kathleen Battle and Christopher Parkening, utilizing that sound as the foundation for their arrangement of Boi Bumba.
The final segment of the program is title Hope Fulfilled, which speaks to the reality that as we remain committed to the journey, we will experience the fulfillment of our efforts and hard work. A trailblazer, Florence Price was arguably the first African American woman to have her Symphony No.1 in E Minor performed by a major orchestra. She once stated, “I have two handicaps—those of sex and race.” Her legacy is honored with a performance of two of her songs, first Adoration, which was initially published in 1951 for the organ, but this arrangement has been orchestrated for rhythm section, harp, marimba, and voice. Hold Fast to Dreams is a song that she composed, setting a poem by Langston Hughes, from the song collection Five Art Songs.
Owens’ writes: “A few months ago, I had dinner with Michael Feinstein, his husband Ken and my mentor/ celebrity chef and restaurateur Alexander Smalls in Harlem. I spoke directly to Michael about J’Nai, this project and the overall goals we desired to accomplish artistically, and he said, ‘Ulysses, there is one song you have to perform, because it sounds like it was created for Notes on Hope, and it’s called It’s Good to Have You Near Again.’ He began to sing the song to me right at the dinner table, and then introduced me to the album Right as The Rain featuring André Previn and Leontyne Price performing many popular and accessible songs. But this is my favorite, and Michael was correct. This song opened up a treasure trove for me, and to hear Leontyne’s lyrical approach with André’s gorgeous piano playing will, quite frankly, be the perfect close to the evening and illustrate the notes of hope that we have and continue to have as we are honored to perform and create again and again.”