New York Philharmonic to Honor Black Composers | Playbill

Classic Arts News New York Philharmonic to Honor Black Composers

It has partnered with the Interlochen Center for the Arts to present LIBERATION, dedicated to Black artists and social justice.

Conductor Leslie B. Dunner

To guide those songs 
I sing to join
Your songs,
Our songs.
To liberate
And free
All songs
That join our beacon
To the stars.

—from Gathering Song, Tazewell Thompson

The New York Philharmonic has joined with Interlochen Center for the Arts to present two musically diverse but thematically linked programs, part of LIBERATION, marking a commitment to social justice and reimagined audiences. One of four themes for the NY Phil’s inaugural season in the recently renovated David Geffen Hall—along with HOME, SPIRIT, and EARTH—it marks the Orchestra’s exploration of today’s most vital issues. “The themes for our season reflect critical considerations that face not only the Philharmonic but, indeed, society,” says NY Phil Linda and Mitch Hart President & CEO Deborah Borda. “It is time to begin anew.”

LIBERATION exclusively features works by African American composers in concerts programmed and conducted by Leslie B. Dunner, maestro of the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra, comprising high school–aged musicians. “For me, LIBERATION is not a concert,” says Dunner, a native New Yorker. “It is a cultural-immersion event.” The collaboration also launches the Interlochen–New York Philharmonic Creative Youth Development Initiative and the NY Phil Scholarship Program. 

In one program, performed March 2 and 4, Dunner conducts the NY Phil in works by three Black composers representing distinct generations: William Grant Still, a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance; Adolphus Hailstork, who came of age during the postwar civil rights movement; and Courtney Bryan, a versatile and accomplished millennial musician. Bryan’s Gathering Song, commissioned by the Philharmonic and performed in its World Premiere, sets an original libretto by the eminent director and playwright Tazewell Thompson sung by bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green. If Still’s 1937 Second Symphony, Song of a New Racecommemorates what the composer described as “the American colored man of today ... a totally new individual,” Gathering Song taps sources of inspiration ranging from Scott Joplin to Wayne Shorter to Stevie Wonder, while offering what Bryan calls a “welcome piece” summoning mirthful unity. The program culminates with Hailstork’s magisterial cantata "Done Made My Vow," performed in a staging by Thompson with projections by renowned video artist Rasean Davonté Johnson.

Even as it, too, pays unwavering homage to Black heroes and Black perseverance, the work’s call to “acquire wisdom” bears a broader and timely message of hope, pride, and thanksgiving. Highlighted by Still’s vision of transformation through confluent histories, Hailstork’s call for a collective walk with the wise, and Bryan’s and Thompson’s affirmation of the power of common cause, the concert sounds a keynote of renewal through reassembly that, in Thompson’s words, steers us toward “a place called together.”

The March 3 Interlochen performance combines the Academy’s core artistic disciplines—creative writing, dance, theater, visual arts, film, and music—to introduce the perspective of the next generation. As Dunner says, “I wanted to have music that represented different kinds of African American composers, and I wanted all of the compositions to be pieces by people who are currently alive because classical music is seen so often as a dead white man’s art.”

Dunner conducts the concert, which opens with ममममम: MUKTI (the concept of spiritual liberation from a number of Indian religions), an original multidisciplinary work created and performed by Interlochen Arts Academy students. It is followed by four orchestral works in which the students will be joined by NY Phil musicians, many of whom are Interlochen alumni, to perform repertoire that, like the Philharmonic’s LIBERATION program, weave together questions of history and memory. John Wineglass’s Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked: A Requiem for Rice memorializes the enslaved African Americans who lived and died on Southern rice plantations. Underlying Equality, by Interlochen Arts Academy graduate Jonathan Bailey Holland, is the recitation of a Maya Angelou poem with the insistent refrain: “Equality, and I will be free.” In Mary Watkins’s elegiac yet uplifting Soul of Remembrance, memory both throbs with pain and offers comfort. Umoja—its title from the Kiswahili word for “unity” and a signature work by Valerie Coleman—is heard in a 2019 arrangement for orchestra that, according to the composer, explores “the meaning of freedom and unity. Now more than ever, Umoja has to ring as a strong and beautiful anthem for the world we live in today.”

For Dunner, liberation and artistic expression are unified: “Liberation, for me, means not just being freed from the shackles of bondage or mind limitation, but also the freedom to dream, the freedom to be unorthodox, the freedom to fail, yet create beyond what was originally conceived. That’s truly liberating and liberated, as far as I’m concerned. And that’s what I want the programs to do.”

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