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LexPhil presents chamber music concert featuring work of Black female composers Perry and Price

LexPhil ensemble
Cheri Lawson
Alicia Helm McCorvey, Whit Whitaker and Adrienne Thakur at LexPhil chamber music concert

A special chamber music performance by the Lexington Philharmonic ensemble was held in early October to highlight the work of Julia Perry, a Black, American neo-classical composer born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1924.

She’s known for combining her European classical and neo-classical training with her African-American heritage. But for some time her work was largely forgotten

The concert featured some of Perry’s work and the work of another Black composer, Florence Price.

In an afternoon of storytelling, history, and music at a small Lexington art gallery, a Lexington Philharmonic ensemble presents a concert called Legacy-The Perry Family. The performance combines the work of Black female composers Florence Price and Julia Perry. Guest vocalists Alicia Helm McCorvey and Whit Whitaker take turns performing the songs of Price and Perry.

More than 150 audience members listen closely to the music and to the host of the program, Adrienne Thakur, a self-described musical and artistic enthusiast. Thakur said Price, who preceded Julia Perry by 40 years, was the first Black woman to achieve distinction as a composer nationally and abroad.

Thakur tells how Perry was born in Lexington’s east-end neighborhood in March of 1924 and died at age 55. She said Perry was recognized as one of only a few significant American composers regardless of race and gender whose music was frequently performed in Europe and the U.S.

The native Lexingtonian appreciates the opportunity to host this afternoon showcasing some of the work of Perry and Price.

“Learning about the trials and tribulations that we know affect African-American women and have for decades in the classical music context and to find out that there are at least two who have overcome and have found their place in the canon and one of them is from my hometown, I’m elated,” exclaimed Thakur.

Perry attended Westminster Choir College, The Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, Julliard’s extension division, and the Columbia University Opera Workshop. She received two Guggenheim Fellowships and composed several pieces including 12 symphonies and three operas. Alicia Helm McCorvey performs Perry’s, ‘Lord! What Shall I Do.’

The Lexington Philharmonic’s executive director, Allison Kaiser, said her organization is honored to work in partnership with local historian Yvonne Giles, Lexington’s African Cemetery #2, and the Lyric Theater to raise awareness of Perry’s prominent place in Lexington’s history. Kaiser tells the audience how Perry’s work was largely forgotten.
“What we discovered when we started looking into the work of Julia Perry is that her work was not maintained or cataloged after her very young death. And we feel like the work of such a brilliant and recognized composer needs to be preserved, rediscovered and brought back to the attention of orchestras and music lovers, not just here in Lexington, but across the United States," said Kaiser.

Julia Perry was the fourth of five sisters. Her father was a physician and her mother was a teacher.

As a Lexington historian, Yvonne Giles shares details of the Perry family .She said 10 family members are buried in African Cemetery #2, including Julia Perry’s brother who died at 7 weeks old.

On this day, the audience learns about Julia Perry's grandfather, Abraham Perry, who was a well- known respected thoroughbred horse trainer.

“The horse that he conditioned, Joe Cotton, won three Derbies, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Coney Island in 1885. He trained that horse for his entire racing career. His earnings were such that his wife took his money and built a two-story brick home, that is still standing, was home to three generations of the Perry family before they moved to Ohio,” reported Giles.

A painting of Julia Perry done by Ken Burney contemporary artist at the Artists' Studios in Lexington was unveiled during the performance.

Burney said Perry’s music inspired him as he created the 60 by 72- inch canvas painting with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“She was heavily influenced by African-American music which I thought was interesting for a classical composer to be influenced by a whole different genre of music," said Burney.

During the concert vocalist, Whit Whitaker sings Perry’s, Free at Last.

LexPhil is planning another special concert in May with a unique piece by Julia Perry, called Homunculus C.F. This is a work inspired by Perry’s father’s medical practice and his medical instruments.

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Cheri is a broadcast producer, anchor, reporter, announcer and talk show host with over 25 years of experience. For three years, she was the local host of Morning Edition on WMUB-FM at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Cheri produced and hosted local talk shows and news stories for the station for nine years. Prior to that, she produced and co-hosted a local talk show on WVXU, Cincinnati for nearly 15 years. Cheri has won numerous awards from the Public Radio News Directors Association, the Ohio and Kentucky Associated Press, and both the Cincinnati and Ohio chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists.