Clipper Erickson

Clipper Erickson doesn’t like to sit still. As a performer and as a recording artist, he is seemingly everywhere at once.

In the past month or so, he has performed at least two solo recitals, on top of George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, with the Warminster Symphony, and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 — twice — with Knox-Galesburg Symphony in Illinois and locally with the Capital Philharmonic of New Jersey. He is also anticipating his latest CD release, “Tableau, Tempest and Tango,” due out on Navona Records on July 13.

The indefatigable pianist, who is on the faculty of Rider University’s Westminster Conservatory of Music in Princeton and Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance in Philadelphia, is gearing up to present his latest program in a crusade to resurrect the half-forgotten music of R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943).

Erickson will be joined by soprano Deborah Ford, baritone Gregory Hopkins, and Mostly Motets for a mixed program of Dett’s music at St. Michael’s Church in Trenton on Sunday, June 10, at 3 p.m.

Much of the repertoire languished in obscurity for decades until it became something of a passion project for Erickson.

“I was introduced to Dett in the 1990s by a great friend of mine, Donald Duncan, who is a terrific choir director in Philadelphia,” he says. “He knows a lot about black composers. He said, why don’t you try the ‘Juba’ dance, which is the one thing that people really seem to know. I played through it and thought, okay, that was fun. But then I got the complete volume of all of his piano works and started reading through the rest, and thought, this is really beautiful stuff and it’s just wonderful to play it.”

Despite the fact that “Juba” had been recorded by the famous Australian pianist Percy Grainger and an album containing some of the suites performed by Denver Oldham was issued in 1992, there were no comprehensive recordings of the composer’s output. “I thought, well, this needs to be done,” Erickson says.

His research for a dissertation on Dett’s piano works qualifies him as a world authority on this neglected composer, who was born in what is now Niagara Falls, Ontario. The grandson of Underground Railroad refugees, Dett became an important figure in American music. Yet he is remembered today, if at all, for a lone piano suite, “In the Bottoms,” or perhaps only for its two-minute concluding dance, “Juba.”

Erickson is the first to record Dett’s complete piano works. His performances have been issued on an album titled “My Cup Runneth Over,” on Navona Records, for which he provides his own liner notes. The two-CD set was made possible, in part, through the financial backing of St. Michael’s Church, where Erickson serves as organist.

“It’s really wonderful to be part of the church,” he says. “It’s a great group of people. It’s very diverse, and the church has a very interesting and long history. I like being part of that group, and they’re very supportive of the projects that I do, so whatever they need I try to do for them.”

This year marks the church’s 315th anniversary. Earliest parish records date from 1703, the year acknowledged as St. Michael’s founding. The church was originally located in “the Township of Hopewell” (now Ewing), near what is now Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. The congregation moved to King Street (now North Warren Street) in Trenton, where it has remained since the 1740s. The cornerstone of the new church was laid on the Feast Day of St. Michael.

The church history is very much tied up with early American history. Because of the political divisions that divided its congregants, services were suspended during the Revolutionary Era. The Continental and British Armies occupied the church. Hessian mercenaries used the church grounds as barracks, stable, and armory. During the Battle of Trenton, combatants fought it out on church property. Later the building was employed as a hospital by the Continental Army.

Very much the worse for wear, the church reopened in 1783. Renovations and improvements were undertaken. In 1843 the church added its Warren Street frontage. In 1858 some of St. Michael’s leading members left to form a new parish — the nucleus of Trinity Church (now Trinity Cathedral).

St. Michael’s is the oldest Episcopal church in the area and one of the oldest in New Jersey. Its current vicar is the Rev. Mark David Johnson, whose biography, posted on St. Michael’s website, states that he was drawn to the church by his love of music.

Erickson has served as organist at St. Michael’s since 2012. He also served there from 2004 to 2008. The Dett recording was made in 2015, following two St. Michael’s performances.

“I did two programs there of Dett’s music, which included piano works, some of the vocal music, and also poetry readings,” he says. “Dett was a published poet.”

Dett was also the first musician of African descent to earn a B.A. in Music from the Oberlin Conservatory. He pursued graduate studies at Columbia University, Northwestern University, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, the Eastman School of Music, and the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, France, under the supervision of legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger.

He himself became an influential teacher. His works won prizes and his concerts and recitals received favorable notices. He was a gifted writer and choral conductor. All in all, his posthumous neglect is puzzling.

“I think there are a lot of reasons for that,” Erickson says. “One is that he doesn’t fit into our stereotypes. He’s a black composer who doesn’t compose in a jazz idiom, and that’s what people usually assume when they run into an African-descent composer — oh, it’s going to sound like jazz. His music has roots in German Romanticism, so it sounds a lot like Edward MacDowell or Amy Beach or Edvard Grieg. All of those influences are there. Of course there are strong ethnic influences, as well, but it’s very much rooted in European classical music. He doesn’t fit into any easy categories, and in general composers that don’t fit in easy categories tend to get overlooked. You have to work very hard to get that kind of music out there in front of the public.”

With the notable exception of “In the Bottoms,” most of Dett’s scores have also been long out of print. Even so, Erickson speculates that the music isn’t flashy enough to attract the interest of many pianists.

“Pianists kind of like things that go over well in competitions, and Dett’s music is very personal,” he says. “It’s very poetic and intimate. Those things usually don’t fly in competitions.”

He hopes to have a hand in changing that. This latest concert is one more step toward his dream of one day presenting an all-Dett festival. He is in talks to present another concert at Westminster Choir College next spring. In October he hopes to appear in a special program at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

He is pleased with the CD’s reception. “The CD got something like 11,000 track downloads and lots of play on Spotify, even in the second year since it’s been released, which is very unusual for a classical CD. So I am very happy about the continued success of his music and how it’s getting out there, and we’re hoping to follow that up with the vocal CD. There are some old recordings of some great singers performing it, like Dorothy Maynor and Marian Anderson, but nobody’s put it all together, and that’s what we’re hoping to do on the next project.”

Deborah Ford and Gregory Hopkins are expected to participate in that project.

Ford serves as associate music minister and choir director at Trenton’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. She studied at Westminster Choir College, earning degrees in sacred music and performance. She is a winner of the New Jersey State Opera Competition and the American Institute of Musical Studies Competition. She has appeared as soloist with American orchestras and choirs including the Choral Arts Society of Washington D.C., St. Louis Opera Festival, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

Hopkins is founder and artistic director of Harlem Opera Theater in New York City. Born and raised in Philadelphia, he received his advanced musical education at Temple University and the Curtis Institute of Music. He is also music director of the Harlem Jubilee Singers and the Cocolo Japanese Gospel Choir and minister of music for Harlem’s Convent Avenue Baptist Church.

Mostly Motets is an 11-member a cappella group based in Yardley. The ensemble, directed by Timothy Carpenter, is made up of former or current members of Princeton Pro Musica, Westminster Choir, and other notable area ensembles.

“I’m very much in favor of getting his music out there because it really is beautiful,” Erickson says. “He had a tremendous gift for melody and also a great gift for writing for the piano. The kinds of colors that he gets out of the music, it’s a joy to play.”

Erickson’s imminent CD release, “Tableau, Tempest and Tango,” will include music by David Finko, Modest Mussorgsky (“Pictures at an Exhibition”), and Temple University composer emeritus Richard Broadhead.

Finko, now 82, was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). His love of music, which he studied since childhood, eventually eclipsed his career as a naval engineer. He abandoned submarine design in favor of composing full-time in 1966. Finko emigrated to the United States in 1979. He has been an American citizen since 1986. He has taught at several American universities, including Yale and the University of Pennsylvania. He is the composer of 11 operas, 17 concertos, three tone poems, two symphonies, and sundry chamber works.

Since the recording of “Tableau, Tempest and Tango,” the number of piano sonatas has reached four, with the latest written specifically for Erickson. Erickson says he will have to include that one on his next CD.

“I told him (Finko) that I would record all of his piano music, so that he would live to see all of it preserved. It turns out that his music actually took just over one CD’s worth, so I decided to record ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ to go with. The music is, you know, Russian, so it goes quite well together. And there were a couple of pieces that Richard Broadhead had written for me. I decided to include those, as well. One of Broadhead’s pieces is a very funky, atonal tango. So the CD title is ‘Tableau, Tempest and Tango.’”

Erickson was born in Santa Barbara, California, where his father was a physician. His music studies took him to Juilliard, Indiana, and Yale. Thirty years ago he settled in Philadelphia, where he earned his doctorate at Temple in 2014. While completing his dissertation on the piano music of Dett, he studied with Alexander Fiorillo, a pupil of Vladimir Horowitz.

He currently makes his home in Bucks County with his wife, Rise Kagan-Erickson, who plays handbells and appears frequently with Erickson in concert. The two met at Newtown United Methodist Church, where Kagan-Erickson is director of music.

Erickson is self-trained as an organist. He confides that he also has a harpsichord at home, but he is not sure when he’ll ever get around to putting it together. In his spare time he likes to keep active. “I don’t really have too many ‘home hobbies,’ other than I like to hike and bike,” he says.

Clearly he is not a man who likes to sit still. His love of music fills this part-time church organist with a missionary’s zeal.

“I feel like there’s something that I need to do here,” he says. “I am conscious of wanting to leave a legacy. I’m not satisfied with just playing a few concerts and slowing down and going out to pasture. I want to leave a legacy and make a difference in the musical conversation.”

Clipper Erickson and Friends, St. Michael’s Church, 140 Warren Street, Trenton. Sunday, June 10, 3 p.m. $20 suggested donation.

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