For Black History Month, ROCO Plays Bonds...Margaret Bonds

ROCO continues its 2020-21 season with a tribute to one of the most storied Black female musicians in the 20th century.
ROCO continues its 2020-21 season with a tribute to one of the most storied Black female musicians in the 20th century. Photo by Joel Luks
ROCO’s first concert in Black History Month will be an exploration of one of music's most storied Black women. Celebration of Margaret Bonds, featuring a wide cross section of the musician's work, will take place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, streamed live from Rienzi, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s historic house museum for European decorative arts.

This chamber concert will feature and be co-curated by pianist Howard Watkins, a scholar of Bonds’ music, and bass-baritone Timothy Jones.

Born in Chicago in 1913, Bonds was almost destined to become a phenom in the arts world. Her mother worked as a piano instructor and organist, so the child was surrounded by music her whole young life, leaving an indelible mark. Even as a youth, Bonds showed great promise at the piano, and her talent only grew from there. She earned a bachelor's and master's degree from Northwestern University in music, cementing her roots in the performing arts as she entered adulthood. Throughout her career as a pianist and composer, she worked heavily in spiritual music, classical music and musical theatre.

Bonds also broke barriers as a Black performer. This concert makes a perfect fit for February as the Institute for Composer Diversity lists ROCO as the number two orchestra in the nation for programming composers of color.

"Margaret Bonds is a seminal figure in African American work and music. She was the one of the great performers and composers, and she was the first African American woman to perform as a pianist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She is probably better known to us today as a composer. Among her many works, she has set many spirituals. We know her arrangement of 'The Whole World in His Hands,' and she wrote quite a lot of other music as well," Watkins said.

"Rather than focus on the spirituals, which are her best known output, this concert will focus on her other well as other works of people who were influenced by her, whom she influenced or whom she had similar influence from like librettists or poets. She used the great Langston Hughes, who was a seminal figure in the Harlem renaissance," he added.

The hour-long concert will show the longstanding relationship between Bonds and these other creative minds. The set list includes the following:
  • Bonds' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (Text: Langston Hughes)
  • Bonds' "Three Dream Portraits" (Text: Langston Hughes)
  • Ned Rorem's "War Scenes" (Text: Walt Whitman)
  • Robert Owens' "Tearless" (Text: Langston Hughes)
  • Florence Price's "Night" (Text: Louise Wallace)
  • Price's "Song to the Dark Virgin" (Text: Langston Hughes)
The evening will also include discussions with the evening's performers.

Watkins explains the connections between all of these figures and how they make sense in the context of the Thursday performance.

He said, "After the suggestion from a colleague that Robert Owens should meet Langston Hughes, he traveled to New York City and talk to him about possibly setting some of his poetry, and Hughes gave him a book of poems called Fields of Wonder. From that book, Robert Owens composed another group of songs and the Tearless song that we’ll perform. In particular, he was close friends with Langston Hughes and Margaret Bonds was friends with Langston Hughes, so we thought it would be nice to include his work [as one of Bonds' contemporaries.]"

Price will also have a presence in the evening.

"She is another great African American woman and composer, and she was slightly older than Bonds. Florence Price was born in 1901. Interestingly, Margaret studied composition with Florence when Margaret was a child at the age of 13. When Margaret performed her history-making concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, she performed the piano concerto of Florence Price. They remained good friends, and we thought it would be interesting and instructive to include a few works from Florence," Watkins said.

When not busy performing or composing, Bonds was also was a teacher, which is how Rorem entered the picture.

Watkins explained, "Ned Rorem was a piano student of Margaret. We know him as a great composer now, but he studied with Bonds and Hughes and maintained a close friendship with her over the years. His War Scenes is based the works of Walt Whitman, who was a huge influence on Langston Hughes. By bringing him into the mix, that connects both the poets who inspired the music as well as the composers. It’s an outstanding piece and gives some nice variety to the program."

Singer Jones also expresses the importance a concert like this brings during Black History Month.

"Florence Price, Margaret Bonds and many of their contemporaries, they were rebels. They weren’t afraid to be different. They studied their craft well and wanted to make a difference. They were living in Chicago, and the Chicago group was able to band together and create a strong community of people who were without fear. They were recognized by everyone. It was good, quality music, and their music deserves to be heard. Some of it has been pushed aside over the years because it wasn’t in the mainstream, but it’s great to have this music return almost 100 years later," he said.

He further explained how setting poets' words to music drives home the messages' impact.

"During this concert, I’d like for people to experience an artist with amazing imagination. These artists were able to take the words of a genius like Langston and turn it into an even stronger communication. The words were already powerful, already meaningful, and it adds another layer of depth to the text. People will know them, but hearing them set to music by these great artists and performed by us - people who live right here in this community - it makes a big difference in being moved by great art," he said.

The setting of the concert holds a special connection to the show. Originally the home of arts patrons Carroll Sterling Masterson and Harris Masterson III, Rienzi houses an extensive record collection in which a rare, previously unknown late 1960s recording of Bonds in performance was discovered.

For extra kicks, ROCO has partnered with the Museum District area restaurant Lucille's for Celebration of Margaret Bonds on a special to-go deal and menu in conjunction with the concert. For $40 per person, patrons may receive a three-course meal with optional cocktail 1-liter pairings available for $25 each. Part of the partnership is to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the release of a famous recipe cookbook by Lucille Smith who inspired the restaurant through her accomplishments as a chef, entrepreneur and culinary educator during her time.

Celebration of Margaret Bonds takes place at 7 p.m., Thursday with ROCO. For information, visit or Free.
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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd