Natalie Hinderas: Leading Interpreter of Black Classical Music

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[This article originally appeared in the August 1977 issue of Contemporary Keyboard magazine.]

ALTHOUGH she has broken down a good many barriers in her expanding career, Natalie Hinderas is still often typed as a woman pianist, a black pianist, a specialist in black music, or various combinations of the above. Consequently, she has taken up concertos big and little, from Mozart to Schumann to Ginastera, and played them with the major orchestras of Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C. For this native of Oberlin, Ohio, success was not quick in coming, despite a raft of awards and State-Department-sponsored tours abroad. In recent years, however, she has come into her own. A professor of music at Temple University, she has created the highly praised double album, Natalie Hinderas Plays Music By Black Composers [Desto, 7102/3] and served on the Music Committee of the National Endowment for the Arts. Somehow in the midst of her busy schedule, Hinderas also finds time for such domestic pleasures as cooking up a gourmet storm for her husband and daughter at home in Philadelphia.

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"It disgusts me when people say that black music should follow the lines of blues," Natalie Hinderas said, with eyes flashing as she rose to subjects close to her heart—stereotypes, ignorance, and discrimination. She was at once beautiful and diplomatic, disarmingly persuasive and consummately refined. Anyone who met her would come away convinced that this soft-spoken, petite pianist could double handedly revitalize the concert literature, invite Steinway and Baldwin to the same tea, and talk the television network giants into donating prime-time hours to public-service classical-music programs.

A few years ago, while the media were studiously ignoring black musical accomplishments beyond the range of jazz and soul music, she was off collecting "unknown" black classical music throughout the country and recording it on a two record set. She commissioned major works, among them George Walker's Piano Concerto No. 1, which she will perform with the New York Philharmonic in August. She sought out a variety of composers ranging from William Grant Still to Talib Rasul Hakim and brought their music to life. This gentle Philadelphian with the powerful technique has achieved more through her own enterprise than many a high-priced, high-manpowered research project.

"It's very hard to define black music. Today, the black identity is often indistinguishable from anybody else's in [classical] music," she explains. "Black music, I suppose, is music written by a black person who has gone through the black experience.

"And that's a unique experience, sometimes duplicated in the white culture when you are insulted and degraded—yet different. You always felt this designation as a second-class citizen, and this made it unique—something like the untouchables in India, or the Jews in Nazi Germany."

Hinderas was eminently suited to the black-music mission that she under-took. She was a third-generation student at the Oberlin Conservatory, a college that prided itself on being the first to admit two minorities—women and blacks. Composer Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) had actually visited the Hinderas household, and her mother, who teaches in the Cleveland Institute of Music, had known Howard Swanson, another eminent composer. The recorded black piano music project began to take shape, and it wasn't about to be confined to the black keys.

"We raided the cedar chest," she recalls with a smile. "There we found Dett's In The Bottoms under a frayed green cover."

"I had friends. Hale Smith gave me his Invocations. Stephan Chambers, who changed his name to Rasul Hakim, gave me Sound-Gone, which he wrote for me. It allows me to improvise, use a water glass and pencils, pluck and strum the strings. The best piano isn't always the best piano for this," she laughs, as if self-conscious.

"Hale introduced me to Arthur Cunningham, but he'd already heard of the project, and his Enigrams were already in the mail. Composers don't take long to find out when somebody wants to play their music!" Another hearty laugh, with her head tilting upward. "The Cunningham reminded me of jazz, and I told him that. William Grant Still gave me Three Visions. The late John Work, who arranged a lot of pieces, did Scuppernong, which Mrs. Work gave me. Scuppernong is a river in the Carolinas, but it's also a grape. I said that I couldn't relate to a river, but I could to a grape." She laughs once again. "It has pealing church bells, and it's Gershwinesque."

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Not too surprisingly, four of the nine composers on the album were Oberlin alumni: Olly Wilson, who taught there, Still, Dett, and George Walker. It's amusing to note that with the project virtually complete, Hinderas still had nothing resembling a spiritual. The puckish Howard Thomas Kerr, Jr., who dreams up outlandish titles like "Filet Of Soul," obligingly created one in a labor of love, his failing eyesight notwithstanding, entitled Scherzino and based on a spiritual, "Walk Together, Chillun'." All told, the set ran the gamut from early Afro-American to avant-garde.

"I played a lot of this music at a music teachers' meeting in Philadelphia. I was scared. I spotted Arthur Cunningham, and I knew that if he didn't like it, he was capable of jumping up and stopping it. Well, at the end he gave me the black salute of victory, and I was relieved."

Among all the composers, the most academically traditional has been George Walker (born 1922), of the Rutgers University faculty. (See Ex. 2 for an excerpt from his Sonata No. 1). When conductor Robert Shaw, also a Walker fan, asked Hinderas whether there were any significant concertos by black composers, she had to answer no, but before you could say, "While you're up, get me a grant [from the National Endowment]," Hinderas was introducing the grant-commission Walker Concerto in Minneapolis. When conductor Paul Freeman repeated it in Detroit, some listeners were moved to tears, while record producers were moved to contract. Hinderas, Freeman, and the Detroit Symphony later recorded the work on Columbia, but the recording has yet to be released.

"When I commissioned it," recalls the pianist, "I told George, 'You're a virtuoso, but don't write it that way.' I don't think he liked that. The Concerto has a lot of very difficult finger-work, but it's not a showpiece for a soloist."

Asked if she played any pieces by foreign black composers, like Chevalier St. Georges, she laughs defensively. "No, I don't have any 'Roots' in my repertoire."

The music scene has calmed a lot since Hinderas feared disruptions of her premieres of pieces by black composers. Today there is a patience to hear people out and to absorb other points of view. The concert hall is no longer a battleground, as she was the first to note. "I've seen a settling and a certain security in people. They have a belief in themselves, the confidence of not having to prove themselves all the time."

She has seen it all, dating back to her first piano lessons at age six. After her schooling at Oberlin, Hinderas studied with Olga Samaroff at Juilliard and Edward Steuermann in Philadelphia. She won the Leventritt Prize and several mouthwatering fellowships, pursuing double majors in piano and composition, in part with Vincent Persichetti. It was a dual move that she has never regretted.

"I started composing as a child. I even missed gym classes in order to compose," she remembers. "It has helped a great deal. I can understand form, patterns, and the mechanism of creation when I play a piece at the piano. The pianist after all is part of the creative process. Why else should I exist as an artist?

"But you also learn that composers can only be treated so literally; it's a big mistake to follow everything on the printed page too closely. You get into a different dramatic frame, with greater flexibility. I've played pieces for composers and had them say, 'Great idea! Why didn't I think of that?"'

Her greatest burden has probably been overt and covert prejudice, from which not even her Nothern liberal upbringing could shelter her. The message was clear early in the game: The big doors of success were permanently sealed shut. She had been told solicitously, "Honey, a little colored gal can't walk across the Hollywood Bowl stage."

Fortunately she wouldn't take tacet for an answer. It took her thirteen years living in the City of Brotherly Love before she got her first invitation to play with the vaunted Philadelphia Orchestra. And in 1972 the "little colored gal" broke the age-old bonds by playing on the Hollywood Bowl stage with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, an engagement that she was invited to repeat. Ultimately, it was prejudice against women that persisted longer, she feels. "I'm doing very well. But there are still not a lot of bookings for women. Of the two prejudices, I'd definitely say that the racial barrier is crueler."

More recently she has soft-pedaled her black repertoire in favor of the major European traditional works of high marketability and brawny impact. "I don't do any of that 'ladylike' business," she affirms. "I want to sound like a musician, not a woman."

Hinderas' biggest concern for the future is in bringing good music home to wider and wider audiences in America, and she is openly critical of our past failures that have led to a select elite continuing to form the backbone of concert attendance. "We're in a bind," she points out. "Today the supply of musicians is tremendous. The audiences, though, are the same—small. We spend a lot of government money to have people write music, but we are not addressing the problem of expanding the audience.

"We really need the media," she continues. "Television has to be more culturally oriented. Earlier, I worked a lot on NBC-TV and radio, playing things like Debussy's Feu d'artifice and Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1, after all the classical artists had backed off from the project. We need this again, and not just on public television."

And finally, what about the attitudes of the performers themselves? "We've been so aloof up onstage," Hinderas concludes, "thinking 'I'm apart, I'm divine.' That has got to change, too."

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