Most people are familiar with the names of certain composers in the classical repertoire — Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky — all white men. But there has been an effort in recent years to uncover the music of underrepresented and undiscovered composers, mainly women and people of color, and one ensemble has been a particular champion of the cause.
The Grammy Award-winning Catalyst Quartet began a project in 2018 to discover and present many of these lesser or unknown composers in a series of albums and concerts called Uncovered. The group will be presenting part two of this project at San Francisco Performances’ PIVOT Festival, known for presenting unusual and unique arts experiences, on Feb. 21, 22, and 23 at Herbst Theatre.
Violinist Karla Donehew Perez, one of the founding members of the group, said that in 2022, the Quartet was in residence with SF Performances and presented four concerts, each with a mixture of music from the first three of its Uncovered albums. She explained, “Melanie Smith [SFP’s president] was so thrilled and inspired by this. She asked us if we would take over the PIVOT Festival this year and present something like Uncovered but that would include other underrepresented people.
“Our programming has always been with some kind of meaning or story,” Donehew Perez added. “We always try to pull people in by having a dialogue between standard quartet repertoire and some new music and some repertoire people don’t know. And over the years, because of the people that we know from the summer festival that we’ve taught at, we have heard many of these pieces.”
The Catalyst Quartet was formed in 2010 by the Sphinx Organization, which is dedicated to increasing the recognition of Black and Latino artists in the classical music arena. Since then, the Quartet has toured extensively in the U.S. and abroad and received numerous accolades. In 2018, while teaching at a summer intensive for kids age 11–17 organized by Sphinx, the Uncovered project evolved from an idea into a commitment.
“When we started fundraising for this in 2018, people thought it was a great idea, but it was really hard to get the project off its feet,” explained Donehew Perez. “But then after an unfortunate set of events politically in our country, people started listening, and I think they realized that this music is actually fantastic.”
Donehew Perez explained that most of this music has never been recorded, and without a good recording, many musicians are not going to play a piece, and presenters are not going to program it. So the Quartet decided to make a series of four recordings, each one featuring a different composer or composers. The first album was dedicated to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the second to Florence Price, and the third (which was just released) to George Walker, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, and William Grant Still. The fourth and final album will be all of the string quartets of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The PIVOT concerts will feature music by Bologne, Venezuelan composer Teresa Carreño, British composer Ethel Smyth, and French composer Germaine Tailleferre, among others, and include guest artists Anne-Marie McDermott on piano and Marcy Rosen on cello.
“Some of these pieces never had a recording, so people are constantly thanking us for doing this,” said Donehew Perez. “But it validates the way we always felt before we started. And what I really hope is that this will encourage other people to record these pieces — because we have many recordings of Beethoven quartets, and all of them are so different, and that’s so inspiring. So to hear other people’s take on this music would be really wonderful.”
Finding the music for Uncovered has been possible through word of mouth, mostly from colleagues who have done some exploring on their own, and searching for recordings. And the reaction so far from audiences in the U.S., as well as in Europe, has been extremely positive. Donehew Perez said that the Quartet even has a small following in Japan, which is kind of funny because the group hasn’t performed there yet.
“We hope to give these pieces a new voice so that people and presenters want to program them,” said Donehew Perez. “We feel very happy with what we have come up with for this series of concerts. These pieces are really amazing.”