Roger Dickerson, New Orleans Concerto

The composer Roger Donald Dickerson was born in 1934. His works list is substantial but little of his music has been recorded for commercial release. As far as I know, there are just two early works to be heard on the streaming services, both programmed on somewhat obscure collections of all-African-American composers.

Just yesterday I discovered New Orleans Concerto (1976), which is on You Tube.


The description says:

3 movements
Leon Bates, piano
New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra / Werner Torkanowski
Live première performance

Bates is an interesting pianist; not only is he black concert virtuoso, but when he was younger, he was a committed bodybuilder. Not too many of those around.

The live recording of the premiere of New Orleans Concerto is not ideal sonically. However the performance seems excellent and the piece is incredible! The piano writing is full of blues material (it begins right away with tremolo figuration from James Booker or Professor Longhair) but the general context is post-Bartók dissonance and drive. Finally!

In the middle movement there is a haunting wordless vocal for mezzo-soprano or soprano, conjuring the blues in another dimension. The finale is boogie-woogie gone surreal, the kind of thing Louis Andriessen tried to write over and over again, but better.

Bates, Torkanowski and the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra deliver a fierce performance. In fact, the limited recording technology distorts in a few places: they were literally raising the roof in NOLA that night.

New Orleans Concerto is the piece I’ve waiting for. I’m so glad this exists. American music!! In the current climate, where black composers are actively being sought to be given commissions, there’s room to hope that this work could be revived on the concert stage and recorded in high fidelity. What are we waiting for?

Previously on DTM: In the overview, I wrote: “A lesser-known piece that may deserve repertory status is played by Karen Walwyn, the Piano Sonatina (1956) by Roger Dickerson.  Dickerson (who is lifelong friends with Ellis Marsalis) composed a graceful and detailed piano piece that manages the considerable feat of sounding like exactly what it is: A fully notated sonata from New Orleans.”

Dickerson was only 22 at the time he finished the Sonatina; the only other piece of his on the commercial streaming services is the Essay for Band (1958) from on the collection Out of the Depths. Like the Sonatina, the charming and energetic Essay is very well done, but both pieces are essentially conservative. There was room to wonder what the young composer might get up to a bit later. Now that I have heard New Orleans Concerto, I’m even more anxious to explore the rest of Dickerson’s mature music…