The Overlook Champion Exhilarating, Riveting Works by Black Composers

by delarue

Tuesday evening at the Hispanic Society of America, violinist Ravenna Lipchik of the Overlook flashed a knowing grin to her violist bandmate Angela Pickett, seconds before the string quartet launched into the third movement of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Fantasie-Stücke. With a passionate, syncopated pulse, a breathtaking melody burst out from the strings of the four women gathered in the front of the basement-level gallery space. This wasn’t exactly a witchy tarantella, or a slashing Balkan dance, but it had elements of both, blended into a breathtaking High Romantic triumph that quickly became the most exhilarating interlude anyone in New York has played for an audience this year.

Wow.

Admittedly, by normal standards, the number of concerts in this city this year has been the lowest on record since probably the 1700s. Still, this was a reminder of everything that was stolen from us during the lockdown – and what we need to get back, and this new string quartet are at the front of the pack leading the way.

The Overlook dedicate themselves to resurrecting material by undeservedly obscure black composers, and championing this era’s crop. Coleridge-Taylor’s five-part suite – recently recorded by another paradigm-shifting group, the Catalyst Quartet – was the legacy piece. Until recently, this once famous composer, conductor and contemporary of Dvorak and Brahms was largely forgotten outside of the organ demimonde. Judging from the rest of his work that’s recently been revived, he’s long overdue.

Coleridge-Taylor’s chamber music is more Slavic than Dvorak and has the same kind of playfulness and intricacy as Razumovsky Quartet-era Beethoven, combined with sometimes stark, sometimes stirring elements of African-American blues and gospel music. This piece had all of that, a gorgeously bittersweet theme and variations along with a devious return to that blazing dance before a somewhat more mutedly heroic coda.

The ensemble – which also includes cellist Laura Metcalf and violinist Monica Davis – bookended the piece with two more recent but equally fascinating works. Guest Tanya Birl-Torres introduced Leila Adu‘s If the Stars Align with a brief meditation suggesting we connect to a comfortable space in between the earth that grounds us, and the world above which gives us life.

Adu is better known as a singer of ornate, soaring art-rock, in a Kate Bush vein, so this was a revelation The music was deceptively simple, built around a series of subtly, increasingly complex gestures that grew into a more complex web, following a steady counterpoint, a series of handoffs and catch-and-follow. There was also a bustling, vividly urban interlude complete with sirens and busy crowds, as well as a flurrying intensity with echoes of Kurdish folk music.

Birl-Torres also served as narrator during the hazy, enigmatic introduction to the concluding work, Shelley Washington’s Middleground. The quartet dug into the piece’s insistent minimalism, akin to a similarly rhythmic but somewhat gentler Julia Wolfe, expanding a steady interweave, its close harmonies and short, emphatic gestures echoing the night’s first piece.

The Overlook’s next scheduled performance is Sept 12 at 4 PM with music by Eleanor Alberga, Florence Price, and Chevalier de Saint-Georges at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, 65 Jumel Terrace about a block south of 162nd St. in Washington Heights, The concert is free; take the A/C to 163rd St.