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UNC Process Series’ “New Generation Project” Makes the African-American Art Song Contemporary

The Process Series presented "The New Generation Project: Contemporizing the African-American Art Song and Arranged  Negro Spiritual" by Louise Toppin (left) and Marquita Lister on Sept. 4-6 in the Kenan Music Building at UNC-Chapel Hill

The Process Series presented “The New Generation Project: Contemporizing the African-American Art Song and Arranged Negro Spiritual” by Louise Toppin (left) and Marquita Lister on Sept. 4-6 at UNC-Chapel Hill

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Process Series, which strives to “illuminate the ways in which artistic ideas take form,” opened its 2014-15 season on Sept. 4-6 with The New Generation Project: Contemporizing the African-American Art Song and Arranged Negro Spiritual, which opened up the African-American art song and arranged Negro spiritual to new connotations and expectations. During last week’s performances in the Kenan Music Building, sopranos Marquita Lister and Louise Toppin not only met the goal of the Series, but also brought the African-American song/spiritual to new heights.

One of the aspects of The Process Series that differs it from a regular performance is that the end of the performance is as important as the performance itself, and the audience is a participant rather than a receiver. During the introduction to the evening, the audience is told that they will be asked questions at the end of the show that are designed to gather input in order to improve the performance series.

Marquita Lister and Louise Toppin are world-recognized sopranos who were joined by like musicians at different points in their performance. The New Generation Project focused on the work of multicultural composers who have responded at various times to the work of African-American poets’ work. The collaboration that the sopranos created with the commissioned composers and poets created a new recognition of the musical heritage of these geniuses.

The two sopranos share a rich background of music and performances that are both national and international. Lister opened the 2014 season as soloist for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Outreach and Education program “America the Beautiful.” In the past, she has sung with the San Francisco Bay Opera, the Houston Grand Opera, the Montreal Opera, Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Grosses Festspiehaus in Salzburg, La Scala, and many others. She has performed with many world-knowned opera stars, such as Placido Domingo and Justino Díaz. Having won many awards for her performances and recognition throughout the world, she lends her substantial talents to this project.

Her partner, Louise Toppin, has received international acclaim for her performances in Europe, Japan, and the United States. She has recorded 16 CDs and has been on the summer faculties of the Baltimore Summer Opera Workshop, The Vocal Course for the National Conservancy in Bogota, Colombia, and The Amalfi Coast Music Festival in Italy since 2010. Toppin also serves on the boards of the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Association of Negro Musicians; and she is the director of the nonprofit organization Videmus and is currently Professor of Voice and Chair of the Music Department of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The evening opened with three James Baldwin poems put to music with Louise Toppin, bringing her considerable talents to the atonal compositions accompanied by Deborah Hollis on the piano. Though there are many lines in the poems that are striking, the one that strikes the audience as most poignant is “the hardest thing of all is hearing silence fall.”

Marquita Lister, accompanied by Nicholas DiEugenio on violin and Alastair Edmonstone on piano, followed Toppin with samples from the “Songs of Solitude” by Richard Thompson and ended the set with “Who Is Sylvia?” by Adolphus Hailstork.

After a short intermission, the second half of the performance included a series of more contemporary pieces. The creativity of the sopranos and their accompanists brought an exploration to the music and lyrics that would not have been evident previously. The musicians were stars in their own right, as are the sopranos. Nicholas DiEugenio has played with both classical chamber groups, as well as being included in projects with such modern musicians/singers as Robert Palmer. Alastair Edmonstone has been a soloist, chamber musician, and collaborative pianist throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Deborah Hollis, a highly respected pianist, has worked with esteemed vocalists throughout the world.

Throughout the performance, the one element that repeated itself over and over was that the evening’s theme reflected both historical music and contemporary themes. If the goal of the creators of this production was to both preserve a musical heritage and to provide a new canvas upon which to express a new version of the old themes, it was accomplished.

THE NEW GENERATION PROJECT: CONTEMPORIZING THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN ART SONG AND ARRANGED NEGRO SPIRITUAL by Louise Toppin and Marquita Lister (The Process Series, Sept. 4-6 in the Rehearsal Room in Kenan Music Building at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).

SHOW: and




Louise Toppin (soprano): (official website).

Marquita Lister (soprano): (official website) and (


Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click To read more of her writings, click

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