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Raphel, the BSO, and Uri Caine’s “Passion of Octavius Catto”

André Raphel
Courtesy of the Artist

Saturday, March 4, 2023
8:00 PM

Encore broadcast on Monday, March 13

André Raphel conducts the Boston Symphony in the first part of “Voices of Loss, Reckoning, and Hope,” including Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Petite Suite and William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony, as well as Uri Caine’s The Passion of Octavius Catto, commemorating the life of the 19th century civil rights pioneer.

André Raphel, conductor
Barbara Walker, vocalist
Uri Caine Trio
Catto Chorus

Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR Petite Suite de Concert
William Grant STILL Symphony No. 1, Afro-American
Uri CAINE The Passion of Octavius Catto

LOUD SOUND WARNING: About 25 minutes into The Passion of Octavius Catto, a starter's pistol is fired several times.

Read program notes for this concert

This concert is no longer available on demand.

Hear a preview of the program with André Raphel using the audio player above, and read the transcript below:


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with André Raphel, who is here with the Boston Symphony for a fascinating program: Coleridge-Taylor, William Grant Still, and Uri Caine's Passion of Octavius Catto. Thank you so much for a little of your time today, André. I appreciate it.

André Raphel It's my pleasure.

Brian McCreath I want to ask you about the piece by Uri Caine, The Passion of Octavius Catto. But first, I'm actually really curious about why you chose the particular pieces you did for the first half of the program. It's got to be a tricky thing when you have this utterly unique piece, this anchor piece of Octavius Catto. What do you precede that with? What do you prepare an audience with or what do you offer an audience before that that's meaningful as well? So, tell me about the piece that begins the program, this Petite Suite by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Tell me about that as your choice to open the program.

André Raphel So this program really came together from a historical perspective, particularly the first half of the program. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was an important Afro-British composer, and he spent some time here in Boston. Notably, he spent an evening at the Harvard Musical Association in 1904, it was. And they said it was a delightful evening. But this piece, the Petite Suite de Concert, no one does it. And this is actually the first time in the history of the Boston Symphony Orchestra that the complete piece has been done.

It's lovely music, it's charming music. There are echoes, influences, you hear the influence of Dvořák, you hear the influence of Elgar. And I even like to think that you hear at some places the influence of what might be Gilbert and Sullivan, even, you know. It's very, you know, sort of happy-go-lucky in some places. It's really charming music.

So, to start with this piece was, I felt, not only because of the Boston connection, but because William Grant Still was influenced by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, so much so that William Grant Still at one point tried to style his hair after Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. If you ever see these old photos of Coleridge-Taylor, you might see him sitting at the piano with a bushy kind of, you know, fro, and early on Still tried to emulate that a little bit. So, yeah, so there is a connection between, you know, a historical connection there with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor coming first and then really Still being this most important of African-American composers.

Brian McCreath I also wonder, the Coleridge-Taylor is not exactly contemporaneous with Catto's life, but it is not that far removed. And I felt like it kind of sets a scene, a sonic scene, if you will, for what we're going to hear later on. I don't know if that was ever part of your thinking about it or not.

André Raphel Yeah, I must say that I was thinking more of this line between Coleridge-Taylor and Still. You know, it's such a delightful piece. I was actually rather surprised that the Symphony, Boston Symphony hadn't maybe even done it with [Boston Pops conductor Arthur] Fiedler at some point. It seems like that kind of piece, that he might have, you know, liked on an, you know, afternoon concert or something like that. But, you know, I think, because of the musical language, it does bring us into the Still. It's almost, like, seamless. You can say, aha, he's the next in line, so to speak. But it's interesting, I hadn't thought of it in terms of the connection to, you know, Catto's lifetime, but certainly the timeline makes sense.

Brian McCreath Well, as I said, it's not direct, so it may not be, but as a scene setter, it feels kind of interesting to me. Well, William Grant Still, yes, an amazing composer from so much of the 20th century, a long, rich life, a career that most composers would envy, including parts of his career that many people didn't even know existed because he was working behind the scenes. Tell me about William Grant Still's life and art – we'll get to the symphony in a sec – but just his overall life and art in your life, because I have to wonder, as you developed as a conductor, when did you come into contact with Still? What did it mean to you that a black composer was this accomplished, was this amazing? What did it mean to you as a young conductor to find his music?

André Raphel Well, Brian, and I promise the audience, we did not speak about these questions before the interview. But I can tell you, Brian, this was one of the first pieces, professionally, I ever conducted on a concert. I won't tell you what year it was, but it was one of the first pieces that I really had a chance to do professionally. And, you know, Still was such a giant, right? Because he was the first African-American composer to have his work played by a major symphony orchestra. He was also the first African-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra. So, you can imagine that, you know, these historical kinds of connections, one thinks, "Well, if there were no Still, there would be no me," you know, for example.

And I've gotten to know this piece over the many years of doing it. And I find now a lot more poetry in this piece because – and you mentioned something about, you know, his long life – he was born in Woodville, Mississippi, of all places, although most people kind of know him as – because the family moved to Arkansas – and so they kind of know Arkansas. But no, he was born in Woodville, Mississippi.

In the 1920's he moved to New York, and he soaked everything up. He was playing in pit bands. He came to Boston, as a matter of fact, and had a lesson, it seems, with George Chadwick. But this symphony, this great symphony, was written in 1930 and then revised in 1935 and again later, but the 1935 version is the version we play. And it's all his language. It's a very unique language. It's a Blues symphony, which is fantastic to be able to do with this orchestra because they play the style so well. But, you know, occasionally he infuses it with jazz in some place and it gives it a very special character. Wonderful to be able to share it with with the orchestra and with the audience as well.

Brian McCreath Well, you mentioned the Blues harmonies, some of the rhythmic language. Now, this orchestra, so many of the players are also the Boston Pops and they can play anything. This is what makes the Boston Symphony what it is. But at the same time, tell me about how you pull colors out of these harmonies that aren't the normal colors that the orchestra produces. Is that something that maybe you do ask the orchestra in certain places to emphasize certain things that they may not have naturally. Does that harmony and the rhythmic - I guess what I'm asking is, how much of a challenge is that for the orchestra?

André Raphel It's not a challenge here, because you hit on it, because this orchestra, their arm, one of their arms is the Boston Pops. They can play anything. So, I can, all I need to say is, "Play it Blues style." I don't need to say this and that and the other. Some places it's not that way. They can play swing, you know, I don't have to say, "Play, you know, the dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythm, like, swing it." I mean I can just say, "Swing it." I don't need to tell them how to play it. This is the beauty.

You know what is very interesting, though, Brian, is that, somehow with this symphony, the more you can come close to not only the Blues language, but closer to the poetry, because Still based this on poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar. And, you know, each of these little poems has sort of a subtitle to it. So, the first movement would be "Longings," right? And you feel that from that initial English horn solo that starts the beginning. The second movement is "Sorrows," right? And this you feel, you can feel it's like a hot summer day in Mississippi, where he grew up in Woodville, you know. The third movement is somehow very interesting because, of course it uses banjo, which is a neat, you know, sonic sort of... This is something that one has to bring out, you know, the character of the banjo is great, great. But still you hear it, your audience will hear it. He's quoting in this Gershwin, "I Got Rhythm." Now, so this got me to thinking because I always thought, you know, what year was this piece written in? 1930. What year was "I Got Rhythm" written in? 1930. The same year. And he calls this movement "Humor," right? This is the subtitle, right? And then the last movement is "Aspirations," hope. It's a very hopeful sort of song, hymn, if you will, the way it starts for the African-American people. Very proud sort of ending comes to a resounding close. It's a very powerful symphony, extremely well constructed, wonderful always to do it.

Brian McCreath And it sounds like it has changed in your own mind. It's evolved even since that very first performance you conducted, and now you're even considering it in a different light, maybe even.

André Raphel Yeah. I think the more you explore, the more one experiences it, the more one sees things differently, more one understands. You know, when I first started doing the symphony, I didn't realize that it was a real, real child of the Harlem Renaissance, you know, and all of that that it brings to bear on the way Still wrote, the way he thought. And so you hear all of that. You hear, even places in the first movement, there's a place where the, you know, the horns, you know, will play the theme with their bells up and people see it. And, you know, this is like, he's in New York, you know, and this is the big city. You know, the first time he's been to the big city. And there it goes. You know, it's right there in the music.

Brian McCreath When you met Uri Caine for the first time, is he someone that you had already known by reputation, or was this sort of a brand-new introduction to you, and what a wildly creative mind his is? Tell me about that first meeting with Uri.

André Raphel Very interesting because Uri and I did not know each other, but as it happens, we lived not too far from each other in Philadelphia. So, it's very interesting. So, when we first met, I didn't know Uri, and I didn't know his music. And what happened was that the Mann Music Center wanted to commission this work for the Philadelphia Freedom Festival, and they wanted a piece with choir and orchestra. And they wanted it to be based on the life of Catto, because he was such an important figure, not only in Philadelphia history, but in American history. And they said, "We'd like to select Uri Caine." And so, they sent to me, the great Evans Mirageas, sent to me some recordings of his improvisations on Mahler. I said, "Yeah, this is a guy, he must, do you have him?" And so, that was maybe January, and the performance was in July. So, then maybe starting in April, three or four times a week, Uri and I were on the phone or we were having lunch or, "What's it going to be here?" And it was a wonderful process. We learned so much. I learned so much from him. And, you know, we really just hit it off. And yeah, it was a great meeting. And we've been, you know, I like to say he's my musical brother. You know, we just have such a good time together. And it's just a joy to do this piece, present it.

Brian McCreath And it was about nine years ago that it was, we're talking about nine years ago when you met and then this was premiered.

André Raphel Right. That was 2014 was the premiere at the Mann Music Center with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Brian McCreath Right.

André Raphel And yeah, it was a great success from the premiere. And, you know, the issue, as many of your, many of the folks in the audience know, is that sometimes you can have a great premiere, and then that piece lies dormant, and it sits on a shelf and you never... And so, I think one of the best things is that the recording that we made then has sort of given it... Who could have planned for any of the events that have happened in the last three or so years? But this piece, you know, it could have been written three years ago. It could have been written a month ago. Right? But it's about Catto's life.

Brian McCreath Is Catto and the story of Octavius Catto, is that something you were already familiar with by virtue of being in Philadelphia, or was this an introduction to his story? As it was for me, I must admit, I mean, it was not a story that I knew before encountering this piece. Is this story, was it new to you?

André Raphel It was new to me.

Brian McCreath Yeah.

André Raphel And, you know, I researched extensively when we did the premiere. Since then, of course, there's been a statue of Catto erected in front of City Hall in Philadelphia. One of the things this did, this Freedom Festival, was to bring him even more into the fore. But no, I didn't really, so it was a lot of research and it got my curiosity so piqued. As it happens, this past summer I was conducting near Kansas City. And they have there... So among, so, let me just say for your audience, Octavius Catto was an orator. He was a baseball player in the predecessor to the Negro Leagues. He was an activist. He was a teacher. He was a recruiter of men for the Civil War. He was an amazing person. And being in Kansas City, I had a chance to go to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. It's there in Kansas City. And when I walked in, almost the first exhibit I saw was of Octavius Catto.

Brian McCreath Oh, no kidding.

André Raphel In the museum.

Brian McCreath Oh, that's fantastic.

André Raphel Almost the first one. Like, maybe you walk in, welcome. Then it's Catto.

Brian McCreath That's amazing.

André Raphel So, I mean, his position, he's been, I say he's a forgotten hero, you know, because he did so much. So, it's so great to be able to keep this history alive.

Brian McCreath Well, exactly. I mean, less forgotten now, thanks to you and Uri Caine and this piece. Because, as you said, the story of his life, I mean, to have lost his life in a riot on voting day, this is so relevant at this very moment in history, even more so, as you say, than it was nine years ago when this piece was written. So, it just is so powerful to me that Octavius Catto, memorialized, I mean, not to diminish it, but locally in Philadelphia for the genesis of this piece, but now a story and music that takes it into this universal relevance of our own time, it's incredibly powerful.

André Raphel Absolutely. I mean, the social significance of this piece is not to be denied. And I think what, you know, there are two very powerful things about this piece. One is that, as your audience listens, they should know that much of the text is drawn from Catto speeches. He was a powerful speaker. So, you know, you have these places that are like call and response and, you know, the soloist is just wailing away, and we have this reaction in the orchestra, you know. That's all Catto. That's all his language.

And then the other thing is, there are these moments where Uri has brilliantly, you know, it's, this piece is such a combination of so many musical styles. It's new music, it's gospel music, it's jazz, it's American patriotic music. There's a little bit of every, Americana, you know, it's everything.

But there are moments where you really feel like the chorus, they're acting as, like, sort of freedom fighters, you know? And they say things like, you know, "Agitate, agitate, educate." Then they say, "Vindicate." The people shall not be moved, right? This is really, you know, it's a powerful statement. And I think, as we've seen, I think the power of the people is not to be denied.

Brian McCreath One of the things that always fascinates me about your job as a conductor, with anybody who's conducting, is that there is an immense technical challenge, mostly a mental technical challenge, keeping all the - sort of the traffic cop side of the story, right? And then there is the emotional part of it. And I'm always fascinated by the experience of the conductor in the performance. Your experience of this piece, when I watch you in rehearsal, you are undertaking something as complex as the navigation of a Broadway show or a Pops concert. I mean, these are actually very complex, you know, really, really complex programs. They don't just sort of organically fall into place. You're really busy. But - I don't know how many performances you've done of the piece, clearly, it's settled in now as from those first performances nine years ago - what is your experience on the stage of this piece when you perform it now?

André Raphel It's very powerful, you know, because like, for example, I was talking to the wonderful [BSO] Choral Director, James Burton, and we were talking about, you know, where the chorus will stand and etc. And I said, you know, there are places where the audience is just going to clap. And, you know, don't be surp- I didn't say this to James, but don't be surprised if you get a couple of Amens in a couple of places, too, because it's that kind of piece. And so, you know, what has been my experience when performing it is that it takes on another sort of life of its own that you cannot rehearse for. I mean, you can rehearse, you can rehearse, but people are going to be moved by it. And that's the great thing about this piece is it really touches people. It really moves people because it's kind of, I've said it many times before, it's not like anything I've conducted before. And so for me, it's very interesting. And Uri and I, we had a good laugh about this a couple of weeks ago. And I said, Uri, I said, you know, those orchestral movements, the interlude, they're difficult. I said, And they should be getting easier for me by now. But they're not, you know, it's just, they're challenging for the orchestra and they're challenging for the conductor. You really have to have a great structural sense about what the piece is, which helps you to navigate, you know, these various changing rhythms and styles.

Brian McCreath Well, and the collaborators on the stage, the soloist, the trio.

André Raphel Yeah, of course. Yeah.

Brian McCreath I mean, they're just so locked in.

André Raphel Oh, yeah.

Brian McCreath First of all, your drummer just has this eagle eye on you. It's so great.

André Raphel [laughs] Oh, yeah.

Brian McCreath But it doesn't stop him from keeping the groove, you know? I mean, the groove is still there. He's still setting it down.

André Raphel Oh, right.

Brian McCreath But yeah, then I'm especially impressed with the chorus, the most variable part of any performance, I want to guess, that you've done. You've got an orchestra that plays together on a regular basis. You've got this trio that plays together. A fabulous soloist. My God, she's amazing. The chorus is generally, it seems to be, assembled from choruses, as it is here, lots of choruses involved, which is amazing. But man, there they are right there. You know, thanks to James, first of all.

André Raphel James has done terrific work. And I should also mention David Coleman, who has also done work with them. They did really terrific work. We had a nice choral rehearsal with, a piano rehearsal, and we talked about, you know, obviously we can always talk about technical things, but we talked about musical things and the text and what the text means, and they really internalize that. It's a nice thing. You mentioned it, alluded to it. The greatest thing about this piece is that it brings together in this particular instance, gospel, members of gospel choirs from around Boston, combined with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. This is really special, you know, And, you know, this is what makes this piece bigger even than, you know, kind of what we do. You know, it has a lasting impact, I hope. I think it does on institutions. So it's the great thing about doing it.

Brian McCreath Wonderful. I feel like I could talk to you about this all day. We'll end there, though, but thanks so much, André. It's really wonderful to have you here at the hall. And just, I can't tell you how much I love hearing this Passion of Octavius Catto, along with the other pieces, of course. But there's so much, you say that it's going to, people will be moved by it. There's also times when you can't help literally physically moving during this piece. It's that kind of piece. You get caught up in the groove of it and it's so fun.

André Raphel Absolutely. Yeah. Well, thank you.

Brian McCreath Thank you for your time today. I appreciate it.

André Raphel My pleasure.