Music Review

Castle of our Skins celebrates music of black women 

 Saturday night at Roxbury’s Hibernian Hall, the black composer-focused series Castle of our Skins presented “Ain’t I a Woman,” an evening that had been a year in the making. Each piece on the roughly 70-minute concert was the work of a black woman, many of the musicians were black women, spoken-word artist Destiny Polk recited poems and prose by black women, and local black woman artisans sold their products at tables on the periphery of the hall. The aromas of homemade body butters wafted through the air. Everything about the evening was intended to celebrate the work of black women.

The fact that such a program is still an anomaly perhaps says more about how far we still have to go as classical music listeners and a society at large. The music came from a span of over a hundred years, serving as a vivid reminder that black women composers do not belong only to the present day.

Pianist Sakura Myers opened the program with “Homage” by Zenobia Powell Perry, a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Later, her grasp on L. Viola Kinney’s genteel “Mother’s Sacrifice” was shaky, but she rolled out a shimmering backdrop for the countertenor Reginald Mobley in Florence Price’s “Night.” Cellist Javier Caballero joined the two for the world premiere of Jessica Mays’s snarling “Bear,” which stitched visceral words together in a chugging, relentless texture. Soprano Sirgourney Cook seemed to draw all the room’s light toward her as she brought forth stunning songs by Undine Smith Moore and Jacqueline B. Hairston, shaping phrases with tenderness over the elegant piano of Sarah Bob. 


After intermission, soprano Synthia Pullum and Bob joined forces for Nkeiru Okoye’s “Songs of Harriet Tubman,” which pulled excerpts from the composer’s full-length Tubman opera into a condensed monodrama. The program’s only piece to directly confront black history was unflinching. The first movement built up an ever-lengthening litany of requirements for the young Harriet’s family to not be separated, and the sparkle in Pullum’s voice hollowed with each repetition. Later, when Pullum let a glorious flight of notes soar, someone in the audience shouted encouragement, and the singer continued with one hand on her hip, smiling. A fervent surprise high note filled the hall with spontaneous applause. Tubman’s life story, Okoye’s words and music, and Pullum’s sublime musical and dramatic acuity united in a powerful reminder of history and affirmation of resilience.


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At Hibernian Hall, May 26.

Zoë Madonna can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.