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Interview: Candace Johnson of MUSIC TO MY EARS - HEARING ADOLPHUS HAILSTORK on MarshStream Shares Her Passion for Art Songs by Black Composers

Johnson's show kicks off a new musical series on MarshStream May 22nd and 23rd

Interview: Candace Johnson of MUSIC TO MY EARS - HEARING ADOLPHUS HAILSTORK on MarshStream Shares Her Passion for Art Songs by Black Composers
Soprano Candace Johnson in performance
(photo by Brian Byllesby)

If, like me, you're not all that familiar with art songs by Black composers, Candace Johnson is here to show you what you've been missing out on. On May 22nd and 23rd, the acclaimed soprano and actress will perform her new show Music to My Ears - Hearing Adolphus Hailstork to kick off The Marsh's new solo performance musical series The Art Songs of Black Composers on its digital platform MarshStream. Dr. Johnson will be joined by San Francisco Symphony pianist Marc Shapiro to shine a light on celebrated modern composer Hailstork's song cycle Ventriloquist Acts of God, blending singing with theatrical storytelling to depict a university professor and her students discussing how to hear the music - and each other - in a whole new way. Immediately following the performance, Johnson and Shapiro will be joined by The Marsh Founder/Artistic Director Stephanie Weisman for a Q&A. Music to My Ears - Hearing Adolphus Hailstork will be streamed at 7:30pm PDT on Saturday, May 22 and 5:00pm PDT on Sunday, May 23. Prior to those performances, Johnson and Dr. Adolphus Hailstork will appear on Stephanie's MarshStream at 7:30pm PDT on Thursday, May 20 to discuss his work. Additional information can be found at

An Oakland-based soprano praised by Opera Wire for her vocal clarity, dramatic presence and expressive interpretation, Johnson has concertized widely, including guest appearances at Carnegie Hall and The Manhattan Center. She is familiar to The Marsh audiences from her previous shows Vox in a Box and An Evening of Negro Spirituals: Crossing Rivers and Building Bridges through Song. She also currently leads a unique and fun virtual singing class for all levels that combines physical activity with vocal training in CJ'sa??FitnesSing!™ offered free-of-charge at 12:00 noon every Friday via MarshStream. Johnson earned her doctorate in Voice Performance from the University of Michigan and serves on the Music Faculty at UC Berkeley, where she teaches voice and specializes in the research and performance of classical works by African American composers.

I spoke with Johnson last week from her home in Oakland. She is one those people who is always a blast to talk to - invariably fascinating, warm and funny. She tends to express herself in complex, thoughtful sentences that combine a deeply-felt passion for her work with a disarming sort of innate nerdiness. We talked about her vision for the series, her enduring passion for the work of Black composers and Hailstork's music in particular, her formative educational experience at the University of Michigan, and how her family has been weathering the pandemic in some surprising ways. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

How did the series on Black composers come to be? What was your vision for it?

Well, it has evolved through my work with the Solo Performance Musical Workshop at The Marsh and continuing to refine what it is I want to say to the audience. It's combining my voice as a solo performer with my passion for performing and studying art songs by Black composers. I was a Chancellor's Postdoctoral Fellow at Cal and that's what I spent my time looking at, and it was an extension of my dissertation recital. So I was trying to figure out how I could take that music and somehow share it in a way that would combine some of the scholarly and analytical things that I had done with the music. Like this song cycle, I looked very intricately at some of the motives and the harmonic language. I'm a singer, not a composer or a theorist, but I do have some sense of how music works in that way.

I really like to give voice to other people. I like to tell my story, yes, but I really love to understand other people's life trajectories, what has inspired them, why does the composer choose a particular poet to set to music, what influences their musical style. Those kinds of questions I was exploring as a doctoral student and as a postdoc, and then I just had this idea of "Well, what if I could give voice to these composers through this medium that feels so germane to who I am as an artist - solo performance?" I love acting, I love improvisation (both musical and acting), but I really love just character. Like getting into another person's life, into their story, into their body, into the way they speak.

And yet there's the academic side of me that I did want to bring to the table and I just hadn't figured out how to do it until this like epiphany just happened, "Well, maybe I could create some kind of series that would highlight this music that I love and would help to promote, not just the performance of the music, but the hearing [of it]." I'm really interested in how we hear music, which is also about how we hear ourselves and each other, and what musics we have been exposed to prior to listening to whatever piece of music we are choosing to hear.

I recognize that a lot of people haven't even heard about these African American composers, so that's one piece - I want to champion the composers. I want to show that while we are hearing something that comes from an African American person, there may be a multitude of musical expressions in that. And having a conversation with people of diverse backgrounds, can we find a common thread that allows us to come together in our humanity in a different way than just, you know, sitting far apart and kind of observing from the outside? Let's get into a smaller circle and have a conversation. And I feel like that's what this music allows us to do.

This first installment centers on the song cycle, and the story takes place in a collegiate music classroom. I play all the parts, but I am a professor of music who is sharing this song cycle - which is what I've done in a class that I teach at Cal - and then I start to share with the students some tools to help them listen at a deeper level. They take the music home and kind of sit with it, and then they begin to interface with this music that I've given them, find some relationship between it and what they're doing.

One character is this African American DJ from "the hood" in Vallejo, California. He's making these connections to this music that seemed like it was completely on another planet for him. He's making these profound statements about what he hears in the music, and then how he took it and put it into his mix at a party, you know taking some hip hop music and throwing in this classical motive, because he found this connection, and then he's really surprised to see how his audience, which is the people at the party, how they respond to it, cause this unexpected thing gets injected into this hip hop music and the crowd goes wild. But it's partly because this guy gets it, he understands how to incorporate it and make it palatable to a group of people who probably would never hear Hailstork, ever.

And there's a Chinese student in this classroom, and she begins to hear how the composer can step in and out of the cultural language. W.E.B. Du Bois talks about that dual consciousness, where the Black composer can choose to compose within the traditional Western European framework, and that alone, or they can bring these African American musical influences and put them into that framework. So this Chinese student understands that like stepping into the white world, so to speak, and choosing either to bring or not bring themselves, the Black part of their expression, into that framework. She says, "Wow, I feel in my culture that I can't always express my voice," and how coming to America helped her to bring her true self. And just that whole idea of censorship, of having to bury one's voice for the sake of a predominant culture.

What I love about having these characters is I get to play them! I get to speak like the person, the DJ from the hood, the Chinese person who speaks Mandarin. And I do feel gifted in being able to hear voices and language and do a pretty good job of emulating those voices, without mocking.

And then there is another character who is partially deaf, and she hears the music mostly through the vibration. She has a whole different perspective to give because she experiences the music more physically than aurally. I feel like I'm gonna cry even when I talk about it because these are some of my students. Some of the characters are a conglomerate of a few students, and then others are like the deaf student, a very special student that I had, whom I learned a great deal from. And she was not a student in my music history class, she was a student in my singing class, so it was just such a beautiful and enriching experience to have her help me learn how to teach her. So it's just wanting to bring some of the beauty of the classroom to the theater, in a unique way.

I will admit that I can sometimes find contemporary classical music a little impenetrable, and I'm probably not alone in that. How would you describe Hailstork's music?

He's a living composer and has some sense of the contemporary, but he is definitely a Neo-romantic. So his music is much more accessible than, let's say, Olly Wilson, who passed away within the last 5 years. He was an African American composer who held a position, Professorship of Composition, at Cal, and he is considered the father of scholarship on the Black composer. If you hear his music, it's gonna take a number of listens and a number of explanations so that you know how to digest what you're hearing. But with Hailstork, the melodies are so lyrical, the harmonies are lush. Yes, the core qualities present themselves in more of a contemporary fashion at times, the music can be a little bit more dissonant than the true Romantic era, but by and large, if you are to simplify his harmonic progressions and how he writes for the voice, he himself says "I look back to the Romantic period."

I mean, I hear Hailstork in a similar way that I hear Richard Strauss. To me, Strauss is like the king of the soaring melody, and I also think Hailstork is the king of soaring melodies, but in the contemporary period. Maybe one of the best ways I could describe his melodies is to take a line from a poem that I wrote for his 80th birthday on what it's like to sing his music: "Singing your score is like the bounty of bursting berries in our mouths." Because it's just delicious, the way that he allows the throat to open. Not every composer can write well for the voice.

And if I look at the African American art song canon, there are not as many composers who write for the high voice. They will often write for the middle voice, like the mezzo, the baritone, even a big tenor kind of voice. But it's more the dramatic voice that I feel like the African American art song literature is geared toward, and I'll tell you why I think that is, but before I say that, I think Hailstork is one of the few who understands the lighter, high voice and knows how to write for it. So for me that's just like golden because then I can sing not just a few of his songs, but I could take probably a quarter of his songs and put them into my repertoire because they work so well for the lighter voice.

When I look at the African American canon, so much of the poetry comes from the Harlem Renaissance, and this is a time when the text was not about frivolities, right? If we look at the Romantic era, we have all this wonderful music by Schubert, and it's all nature, nature, nature. But when you look at the Harlem renaissance, it's about the pain, it's about the voices that aren't being heard. Yes, we do get some reference to nature, but by and large it's about that struggle. And so it makes sense that the voices most suitable for that kind of poetry are gonna be the mezzo-soprano, the baritone, the bigger, more robust tenor voice or dramatic soprano. Hailstork does use some Harlem Renaissance poetry, but he also uses, for instance like with this song cycle I'm doing, contemporary poet Ellen Wise. There's lots of reference to nature and the metaphysical. That's something he's very interested in, so I think that is a part of why the music is lighter.

You've spoken to me before about deciding to pursue classical voice training as a teenager growing up in the South and wondering if Black folks even really did that. Were you aware of Hailstork's music at that time?

Absolutely not!

So how were you originally introduced to it?

When I was working on my doctorate at the University of Michigan, there was a professor emeritus by the name of Willis Patterson who was still very much active in grooming the African American student body. Willis had published the first anthology of African American art songs at that point, and was I think about to publish the second anthology, as well as an anthology of new Negro spirituals. His influence on me and a host of others of us in the school was extremely profound. He has probably the largest collection of African American compositions, specifically for the voice, but instrumental compositions as well. As a student you know helping this professor who's been so influential, I'm just helping him catalog the music - creating the Excel spreadsheets for these thousands and thousands of pieces, and I was copying the song cycles. And I play the piano so I had some sense of what chords sound like if I look at them, and I thought "Oh, my goodness! This is really lush, and the melodies look right for my voice."

I mentioned them to Dr. Patterson, and he said [her voice drops an octave], "Oh, well yes, Candace, of course you should be singing this, putting this in your repertoire." You know, he was a bass. [laughs] So I took him up on it and started to dig into it, and it was this immediate love. The richness of text painting that Adolphus put into his songs, it's just off the charts. I mean, there's this moment in the first song in the cycle where he quotes Puccini, and does it in a Puccini way. Puccini has these soaring melodies that are not just in the voice but found sometimes in the orchestra, you know the orchestra doubles the voice, and Adolphus has this moment where the piano literally has octaves that are doubling the voice, and it pulls from [Madama Butterfly's] "Un bel di vedremo." And get this, the words are "an aria." I mean...??? Genius!

So your love of Hailstork's music really dates back to your time at the University of Michigan. What was that experience like?

I was so desperate to be in the School of Music there. Even though I had done a Master's at the regional school just a few doors down the road, I said, "OK, I'm not ready to do the doctorate thing; I can't get in at that level. I'll just get another Master's." So I started the Master's in 2001, and got my feet wet and still was working very closely with Dr. Patterson. Actually I started working with Dr. Patterson before, while I was actually still a student at the other school, Eastern Michigan University. I was doing some vocal study with him, but also being groomed, you know, to appreciate and to champion the works of Black composers. Then when I entered the Master's [program] at Michigan, I did one semester and my voice teacher was Shirley Verrett, so I asked her and Dr. Patterson, "Now I kind of feel how it works academically here, do you think I would have a chance at getting into the doctoral program?" Because I didn't really want to do a second Master's. [laughs] And they said, "We think that you can." So I set my mind to audition and to say that I would be focusing on the Arts songs of Black composers, and got in.

What was happening at the University of Michigan School of Music at that time was unlike anything that was going on in the country. We had Shirley Verrett, George Shirley and Willis Patterson, these three international opera stars. They were very committed to the cause of the Black composer and making sure that the Black students who came through not only did well academically, but that they were able to perform and speak about this body of music. There's probably a 20-year span of cohorts who came through, where so many of us, especially the singers, this is what we do. We are committed to whenever we program a recital, we will have at least one set that is by Black composers.

And just the richness of networks that we have. There's now an African American Art Song Alliance that meets typically every other year, where composers come together, we have panels, we perform old and new works, and continue to nurture this body of music. The composers nurture each other and we learn first-hand from the composers what their intentions are in the music. One of the things I love most about working on music by living composers is I get to understand firsthand what they meant by a particular gesture in the music, and I get to know as much as I possibly can to bring that to life so that it is not just dots and lines on a page. It's the same thing that we want to do with Strauss and Mozart, but we have the benefit of hearing from the composers themselves.

You are also a wife and mother with two kids, a 9-year-old and a 12-year-old. I've been amazed this past year by families like yours with children at home who've been weathering the pandemic together, constantly rejuggling priorities and schedules, learning new skills on the fly. When you look back at the last year or so, what is the major lesson you've learned from it?

Hmm... the value of focus. What I found was for all of us there were things we were missing and things that were slipping through the cracks because we were so on-the-go. I mean, it was you pick the kids up from school and one day it's violin, another day it's flute, another day it's ballet, and then another day it's weight lifting. And we're talking about running from Berkeley to Oakland back to Berkeley, and then eating in the car, so the car is just this capsule of conversation and food ... and then we come home and we crash.

But this year has given us the opportunity to focus. I will tell you I am so elated and proud of the fact that our son has had his best academic year ever. And we're talking about middle school, you know which can be the time when things kind of go awry, but this has been a time where he's taken more ownership of his work. It's been wonderful to see what his passions are. I mean, we knew he liked history, but he devoured history this year. He was reading books faster than we've ever seen him read books. So that has been wonderful. He's also very interested in coding and tech, 3-D imaging programs, and so we've had him in some online classes for that. Just seeing him get his feet wet and then take off on his own, that's been delightful.

And then to see that our daughter has never lost a step. She always just excelled, excelled, excelled, was always a go-getter. Our son is much more laid-back, more methodical, more observant. And so that was hard for him sometimes in the classroom itself, like he would get lost in the quickness of we've got to get this done right now in this class. But there's so much more time for him to reflect and for his teachers to hear and engage his reflection in this online format.

But back to my daughter, she has been just like killin' the homework. She used to do her homework before her class started and her teacher said, "No, I actually need you to wait until I teach it." [laughs] So you know she gets her stuff done. And then she wanted me to teach her piano, but I wasn't being consistent with doing her piano lessons so we got her this app where she could start flourishing on her own. She has been devouring that and learning chords and different styles [of music]. So she's been able to focus on something she loves and be more consistent than her mom could be at it. [laughs]

And then they both have learned to socialize online with their friends. They understand how to do it and how to do it safely, focusing on their friendships in a new kind of way.

We've been fortunate to be able to say that this year has been good. In spite of the challenges of being quarantined, and even having family members who got Covid, and one family member being in the hospital on a ventilator for 20-something days and coming out of it and being alive to tell the story today. In spite of all of that, it's been a year of beauty, of focus, of breathing ... and definitely getting on each others' nerves! [laughs]

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