Poster Conductor Kellen Gray
Conductor Kellen Gray leads the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in 'African American Voices II.'
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Kellen Gray and Royal Scottish National Orchestra present 'African American Voices II'

New Classical Tracks (Extended Interview) - Kellen Gray
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New Classical Tracks - Kellen Gray
New Classical Tracks - November 29, 2023

Kellen Gray and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra – African American Voices II (Linn)

“I was born in South Carolina, specifically a city called Rock Hill. It's right on the border of South Carolina, in North Carolina, just about 20 miles away from Charlotte,” conductor Kellen Gray says. “And I was lucky enough to also spend a lot of time in the more rural places in South Carolina, like Chester and particularly Catawba, where I went to church, my sort of family church. And when I say family church, I mean I'm literally related to everybody that's a member of the church.”

Gray weaves the influences of Black folk tradition from the American South into his work as a conductor and as a champion of Black composers.

“My father was a singer. In fact, he majored in voice in college, but chose to go into sports as his career. He's a football coach in South Carolina still, and a teacher, as both my parents are teachers. But I was lucky enough because due to his interest in music, and also him being one of the choir directors at our church growing up, music was just sort of all around me, whether it was Barry White or James Brown in the car, or raiding through my parents record collection and just lying on the living room floor and listening to everything from Beethoven to Paganini. And I think it's really influenced me to become who I am today.”

Today, Gray is the assistant conductor at the English National Opera and associate artist at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Part of his duties with the orchestra is to help diversify its repertoire and palette of influence. One way he’s doing that is through a series of recordings celebrating diverse African American voices. The second in that series was recently released, and it features works by Ulysses Kay, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson and Margaret Bonds.

The Montgomery Variations, by Margaret Bonds, chronicles the first decade of the civil-rights movement. It's a seven-movement work that takes listeners on a journey. Can you tell us what listeners are hearing in the different movements?

“It's an incredible theme and variation, but not just a theme in variation in seven movements, but also a narrative, a programmatic work. She takes us through the stages of what would have been from the beginning of ‘Decision,’ all the way through to a peaceful protest.

“In the introduction of the ‘Decision,’ you actually hear the original source material for the theme of variations, which is a spiritual titledI Want Jesus to Walk With Me.” And before I knew anything about this work whatsoever, when I heard just the first couple measures ofI Want Jesus to Walk With Me,” it immediately got my attention because it's literally a spiritual I've been singing all my life since I was a small child.

“And we move all the way to the ’Benediction’, one that starts in a mellow, somber and nostalgic movement of wanting, until we really climax. And it's just such a beautiful, soaring melody. It's a really incredibly moving and evocative work. And I would beg anyone to listen to this piece, but particularly the last movement. I've not listened to the last five minutes of the piece once without having a tear in my eye.”

The final piece on this recording is a concert overture, Worship, by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. There seem to be some similarities there between Perkinson and yourself. How does this piece resonate with you?

I think much like Ulysses Kay, there's not a work by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson that I have heard that hasn't just lit me up inside. I had never actually made the connection until you just said it, that much of this piece really parallels with my life. It's early sacred music and then a combination of classical music and jazz or folk music all together.

“The reason that we put this album together is because for every type of classical music there is, there's a composer of African descent that writes in that genre. I think we really try to display that there's quite the diversity and array of aesthetics among African American composers, hence trying to combine Margaret Bonds, Ulysses Kay and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, three very different composers, to show the variety and depth that exists. And hopefully there will be more adventures to be had.”

Resources

Kellen Gray and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra – African American Voices II (Amazon)

Kellen Gray and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra – African American Voices II (Linn)

Kellen Gray (official site)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra (official site)

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