The Montreal-based Société de Recherche et de Diffusion de la Musique Haïtienne promotes classical music, composers and performers of Haiti and the Caribbean. Since its founding in 1977, it has preserved more than 900 scores of Haitian music by 125 composers, along with other repertoire and artifacts. South Carolina State University music scholar and composer Robert Grenier works with the organization to create critical performing editions of the music and is now focusing on Haitian piano compositions.
In searching for a pianist to interpret some of those compositions, Grenier relied on the judgment of Tom Clowes, a Chicago-area cellist and the founder of Crossing Borders Music. a locally based non-profit that promotes the work of composers from under-represented cultures. Clowes had organized a 2010 concert called “Journey to Haiti” that was broadcast on WFMT-FM, and knew just the person for the role: former Civic Orchestra of Chicago principal pianist and current Music Institute of Chicago faculty member Marianne Parker.
For an event presented by the CSO’s African American Network, Parker will give a recital titled “Treasures of Haitian Piano Music,” at 6 p.m. May 3 in the Club 8 of Symphony Center. The program, which coincides with Haitian Heritage Month, observed annually in May, features pieces by important but little-known Haitian composers such as Ludovic Lamothe and Edmond Saintonge, whose lyrical and harmonic works were influenced by such Western masters as Schumann and Chopin. Elsie Hernandez, of the Haitian American Museum of Chicago, will be on hand to lend historical perspective.
“Haiti has a long and repetitive culture of oppression, and I think in large part it’s not an accident that [these compositions] are not known,” Parker says. “It’s wonderful that so many of these scores have been preserved as well as they have, so it enables scholars and performers to come in and do the work that allows them to be more accessible.”
Parker’s biggest challenge in mastering the music wasn’t so much technical as it was interpretive. “I’m not playing a Beethoven sonata; there aren’t interpretations of this that are the standard,” says Parker, who consults with Grenier, who personally edited over 1,000 pages of piano music at the Montreal-based archive, on matters of interpretation and notation. “I’m steeped in the classical music culture, and all of these works have influences from Western classical music, but I’m not steeped in the Haitian influences in the work.”
In addition, she says, some of the scores are less than pristine. “Sometimes notes are faded, instructions are faded, things are erased, and it’s not clear what the composer’s final intent was.”
Thanks to a grant from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, Parker plans this summer to record the repertoire. And there is evidence that such an endeavor would be warmly welcomed. Last year, video of Parker playing the same works she’ll perform at Symphony Center began circulating online; many of those who viewed and shared the footage — along with sentiments of pride in their cultural heritage — were of Haitian descent. Attendees of Parker’s past recitals have offered upbeat feedback as well, and she is heartened by the “overwhelmingly positive” response so far.
“The few individuals I’ve had the pleasure to talk to have been just beaming,” Parker says. “It’s something new. They haven’t heard this before, and they’re just absolutely elated to have discovered these works.”
Mike Thomas, a Chicago-based writer, is the author of the books You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman and Second City Unscripted.
TOP: Folk art displayed in “The Richness of Haiti” exhibit at Haitian Heritage Museum in Miami.