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Nicholas Phan, Palaver Strings & Farayi Malek release “A Change Is Gonna Come” (May 24)

(April 2024) — Three-time Grammy-nominated tenor Nicholas Phan, whom the Boston Globe declared “one of the world’s most remarkable singers,” joins Palaver Strings, a musician-led string ensemble based in Portland, Maine, and jazz vocalist Farayi Malek for the new album A Change Is Gonna Come on the Azica label, exploring America’s rich legacy of protest songs (May 24). A vinyl release through Onyx Record Press is planned for July 1 and may be pre-ordered here. Repertoire on the album includes traditional songs of protest and music inspired by social movements and historical events, including the world premiere recording of a new commission by Errollyn Wallen titled Protest Songs, sung by Phan. Eight of the thirteen tracks on the album are heard in arrangements by Attacca Quartet’s Domenic Salerni. Spanning genres, eras, and movements, A Change Is Gonna Come provokes conversation, confronts the past and present, and celebrates the act of protest as one of humanity’s most precious rights. Leading up to the album release, a single of Phan singing Joni Mitchell’s “Fiddle and the Drum” will be released this Friday, April 5. Phan elaborates:

“In an age where it seems like most tech algorithms’ primary goal is to provoke anger in order to keep us scrolling on our phones, this program feels important. Music is unique as a form of protest, because, as these songs demonstrate, it has the power to win hearts and minds. Hope for lasting change lies in that special power of song, as does hope for healing and consensus building in this increasingly fractured and fraught time.”

Now celebrating its tenth season, Palaver Strings is led by twelve co-artistic directors passionate about engaging new audiences, amplifying underrepresented voices, and broadening the definition and cultural impact of chamber music. A Change Is Gonna Come marks the ensemble’s second disc on Azica, after the “lively performances” on 2022’s Ready Or Not, which featured music by female composers, left the reviewer for BBC Music magazine “wanting more.” Elaborating on their mission and the new album, the group says:

“This album has been in the works for several years, and we are thrilled to finally release it into the world. The constant barrage of racial inequalities, environmental degradation, political instability, and war we are confronted with every time we tune into current events can easily leave us feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. Protest is a fundamentally hopeful act, which is why it feels particularly important to revisit and reimagine these classic protest songs through a contemporary lens, as both an act of protest, and as a way to imagine a better world.”

The centerpiece of A Change Is Gonna Come is the world premiere recording of Errollyn Wallen’s Protest Songs, commissioned for this project in 2021. An award-winning, Belize-born British composer and performer, Wallen herself wrote the text for the first movement, setting the second to a text by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, an abolitionist and one of the first Black poets published in the United States. Wallen says: “It has been the greatest privilege to compose for Nicholas Phan and Palaver Strings. I am delighted that my new work, Protest Songs, is included on this important album.”

The album opens with an instrumental arrangement of Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, one of the most popular protest songs of all time, and closes with the title track by Sam Cooke, an anthem closely identified with the Civil Rights movement. Partly inspired by Blowin’ in the Wind, Cooke’s song – which features Farayi Malek – was also a response to his lived experience of Jim Crow-era racism. The melodies of both songs have roots in the spiritual “No More Auction Block For Me/Many Thousands Gone.” From the same era are “What Are You Fighting For,”Freedom is a Constant Struggle,” Malvina Reynolds’s “It Isn’t Nice,” Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and Joni Mitchell’s “Fiddle and the Drum,” being released as a single this Friday.

If the most immediately recognizable protest songs come from the 1960s and 70s, the struggle against violence and racial prejudice is obviously nothing new, and a few tracks look back further still. “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill,” a tribute to the labor activist who was executed on tenuous murder charges in 1915, is based on Paul Robeson’s recording from 1939. Harry T. Burleigh’s “Lovely, Dark and Lonely One,” written in 1935, is a setting of Langston Hughes’s “Song” and was written with iconic contralto and Civil Rights activist Marian Anderson in mind, though she never performed it. Abel Meeropol’s searing anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit,” also featuring Malek on the present album, was unforgettably recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. Malek comments:

“It was such a joy to work with Palaver Strings as a guest on A Change Is Gonna Come. The pieces I’m featured on, ‘Strange Fruit’ and ‘A Change is Gonna Come,’ have been part of my repertoire for as long as I can remember. Having the opportunity to record these fresh, new arrangements with Palaver Strings was a privilege and honor.”

Rounding out the album is an instrumental depiction of war reaching back to 1673: the movement “Der Mars” from Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s Battalia à 10. The fiddle solo leading up to it, coming out of “Fiddle and the Drum,” features Palaver violinist Maya French and bassist Nate Martin.

About Palaver Strings
Palaver Strings is a musician-led string ensemble and nonprofit organization based in Portland, ME, whose mission is to strengthen and inspire community through music. Palaver’s musicians share artistic and administrative leadership, guided by a passion for engaging new audiences, addressing social justice issues, and amplifying underrepresented voices through classical music. Each year, Palaver presents over 40 live performances featuring diverse musical programming, cross-genre projects, and community collaborations. Equally committed to education, Palaver offers music instruction to over 325 students per year through the Palaver Music Center in Portland, ME.

About Nicholas Phan
American tenor Nicholas Phan is increasingly recognized as an artist of distinction. With an incredibly diverse repertoire that spans nearly 500 years of music, he performs regularly with the world’s leading orchestras and opera companies. Sought after as a curator and programmer, in addition to his work as artistic director of Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, Phan has also created programs for broadcast on WFMT and WQXR and served as guest curator for projects with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, Merola Opera Program, and San Francisco Performances, where he served as the vocal artist-in-residence from 2014-2018. A celebrated recording artist, he has been nominated three times for the Grammy Award for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album. He is the first singer of Asian descent to be nominated in the history of the category, which has been awarded by the Recording Academy since 1959.​

About Farayi Malek
Farayi Malek is a jazz and contemporary vocalist, composer, and educator. She serves on the faculty at Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory, coaching ensembles and maintaining private teaching studios. A highly sought-after performer, Farayi is a member of Danilo Pérez’s Global Messengers, performing and recording at festivals and venues around the world. As an entrepreneur, she founded Allegro Virtual Preparatory Instruction, LLC, an online learning platform that strives to provide students with access to the highest possible level of preparation for the study of music in higher education.

High-resolution photos can be downloaded here.

A Change Is Gonna Come track list
1 Blowin’ in the Wind (Bob Dylan arr. Salerni)
2 What Are You Fighting For? (Phil Ochs arr. Salerni)
3 Fiddle and the Drum (Joni Mitchell arr. Salerni)
4 “Der Mars” from Battalia à 10 (Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber)
5 Where Have all the Flowers Gone (Pete Seeger arr. Salerni)
6-7 Protest Songs (Errollyn Wallen; world premiere)
I. Boom Boom
II. Song for the People
8 Lovely, Dark & Lonely One (Harry T. Burleigh arr. Ian Gottlieb)
9 Strange Fruit (Lewis Allan arr. Jonathan Bingham)
10 Freedom is a Constant Struggle (Roberta Slavitt arr. Salerni)
11 Joe Hill (Alfred Hayes  arr. Salerni)
12 It isn’t Nice (Malvina Reynolds arr. Salerni)
13 A Change is Gonna Come (Sam Cooke arr. Salerni)

 Violin: Teagan Faran, Bree Fotheringham, Maya French, Grant Houston, Kaitlyn Knudsvig, Abby Swidler
Viola: Brianna Howard, Lysander Jaffe, Elizabeth Moore
Cello: Matthew Smith, Nathaniel Taylor, Kamyron Williams
Bass: Nate Martin
Vocals: Nicholas Phan, Farayi Malek

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© 21C Media Group, April 2024

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