Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Castle of Our Skins makes two presentations at Rockport Music. Ashleigh Gordon discusses

One iteration of Castle of Our Skins, with founder/artistic director Ashleigh Gordon in at front left.

One iteration of Castle of Our Skins, with founder/artistic director Ashleigh Gordon in at front left.

In classical music, there are more forgotten composers than famous ones.

It’s worse for black composers.

“I could count on one hand the black composers I knew about after I earned my degree,”

says Ashleigh Gordon. Gordon was not just any student, but a black student of the viola, trained internationally—including New England Conservatory—now setting trends in how classical music gets presented and perceived.

Gordon is artistic and executive director of Castle of Our Skins, a collective of musicians and artists who perform, inform and teach. Gordon brings a quartet from CoOS to the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport this Tuesday, giving a timeline lecture about black composers, and then focusing on one of them, the late George Walker, for a performance/demonstration of his first string quartet. 

“I’m inspired by Borromeo,” Gordon says, invoking a quartet familiar to Rockport audiences. “They would take a quartet, dive into each movement, and then perform it.”

CoOS makes two presentations in the free events, part of Rockport Music’s education programs. At 4 p.m., Gordon speaks about black artists—ranging in time from composer Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–1799) to Walker (1922–2018). 

“I’ll be giving an overview of black artists and blackness, to show a breadth,” she says. She’ll include black composers—Price, Still, Bonds, Coleridge-Taylor—whose work sits in the margins of the repertory.

“This is a collection of composers who are not ‘other’ in any way,” she says. “They wrote with basic composition tools. They did what other composers did, and their styles drew from them. They share similarities.”

Gordon will delve into Taylor’s quartet in the evening session. George Taylor was the first black composer to win a Pulitzer Prize, in 1996 for his “Lilacs,” a Walt Whitman–inspired setting that was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa. His first quartet comes from fifty years earlier, during World War II—a symbolic confirmation of the artistic breadth Gordon will be talking about.

“It doesn’t sound like 1946,” Gordon says of the work. “When I talk about him, even classical music aficionados are surprised by what they don’t know. I’m always excited by people’s enthusiasm, learning about Walker.

“Kids too,” she says. “How much they can insinuate—they are quick to pick up on why these composers are not celebrated.”

She will talk in detail about the structure of the quartet, and its history—the middle movement, a gorgeous lyric worthy of any comparison to Barber’s “Adagio,” is often performed alone. “Walker’s form is also not an ‘other,’” Gordon says, “but very classical, part of the larger classical genre.

“There are lots of story lines,” she says, thinking about how to present these composers.

“I want to create a sense of legacy, instill the idea of great African-American composers.”

Castle of Our Skins artistic and executive director Ashleigh Gordon leads both a lecture-demonstration, and performance focusing on George Walker’s first string quartet, on Tuesday, Sept. 24, at Rockport Music. Admission is free. Visit rockportmusic.org or call 978-546-7391.

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