The Dream Unfinished Orchestra gave an orchestral and choral concert at the Great Hall of Cooper Union [in New York City] last Wednesday. The musical tribute to black women harmed by racial injustice, female activists, and organizers of the historic Civil Rights and #BlackLivesMatter movement commemorated the one-year anniversary of the death of Sandra Bland.
A complex event, with orchestra, chorus, soloists, and including music by four composers, in addition to presentations or commentary by ten speakers, “Sing Her Name” constituted a powerful tribute to Sandra Bland and dozens of other female victims of racial violence. It also offered vivid testimony to music’s ability to bring communities together in healing. Such healing was greatly needed, in light of all the tragic events of the recent weeks.
The concert featured music by Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), Florence Price (1887-1953) and contemporary composer Courtney Bryan. The historic Great Hall was filled to near capacity (1000). Of this profound and satisfying event, much remained very vividly etched in my memory. First was the opportunity to hear orchestral works by Florence Price performed live, a first for me. I have two very treasured recordings of Price’s symphonic music, including her Symphony No. 3, two movements of which, “Juba: Allegro” and “Scherzo: Finale” were included in the concert. Price is known as the first African American woman to have a symphony performed by a major professional orchestra—her first, in E Minor by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933. Other noted successes followed.
I serve with pride as President of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, a non-profit organization devoted to continuing the legacy of The Women’s Philharmonic (the first orchestra to record Price’s music, in 2001, on a disc including Symphony No. 3 (1940), and tone poems The Oak and Mississippi River Suite available here). WPA also gave a Performance Grant to “The Dream Unfinished Concert” so our logo was included in the printed program, etc. So I certainly am not offering a dispasionate review, as one should not expect anyway in the case of a benefit concert. The ticket income was in support of these organizations: Center for Constitutional Rights, African American Policy Forum, and Black Women’s Blueprint.
John McLaughlin Williams led the orchestra in a highly energized reading of Price’s “Juba: Allegro” (the title referring to a dance of West African origin), with suppleness in the tempos, and an accelerando in the recall of the “A” section, and crisp articulation all around resulting in breathtaking exhilaration. This continued in the frenzy of the Scherzo, and the rousing conclusion brought the concert to a suitably uplifting end. With a compositional idiom that draws on African-American idioms, including Jazz, I was left pondering why Price’s name is not name as familiar to audiences as that of George Gershwin? The sad fact is that much of her music was lost after her death, and the re-discovery is ongoing. The newly discovered Price works that were premiered in January 2015 is discussed here).
Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement is more conservative; its harmonies, structure and pianistic gestures come clearly rooted in romantic and post-romantic European vocabularies, but its melodic idioms sound steeped in Negro spirituals. Michelle Cann, as the piano soloist, was a compelling, sparkling virtuoso, bringing this riveting work to life in its first New York performance. While the Concerto was performed frequently in Chicago after it was premiered in 1934, no full score or orchestral parts survived, only several piano scores. Composer Trevor Weston was commissioned by the Center for Black Music Research to re-orchestrate the work, and that version was premiered in 2011, and recorded (on the Albany label, also available on Spotify). Weston spoke of the experience of this orchestration process, observing “What if you had all the dialogue to a play by August Wilson. And you had the list of all the characters. But it was left to you to figure out which character said what!”
Hearing the brilliance of Price’s music, brought to my mind the fact that the slogan “Black Lives Matter” is as important in the area of classical music composition as well as elsewhere; unfortunately, the programming of most symphony orchestras would lead to the opposite conclusion.
The two songs by Margaret Bonds, a Chicago-born composer who had studied with Price, and became personally very close to her came, also made an impact. We heard “Troubled Water,” Bonds’ arrangement of the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” in a version for chorus and piano. One of Bonds most successful of her many spiritual arrangements, she made several versions of it; this one was by Rob Miller. The Dream Unfinished Chorus drew members for four New York choirs for its polished and captivating interpretation.
Bonds’s other piece, “To A Brown Girl Dead,” set a text by the Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen; this was arranged for orchestra by Courtney Bryan, the young African American composer whose commissioned work was the musical centerpiece of the second half of the program. Soprano Marlissa Hudson conveyed deep emotion with a subtle restraint in this short, poignant setting. The subject of the poem might have been so many of the women, victims of violence, who we mourned together that night.
Terrance McKnight, a host on WQXR radio, made a sensitive and eloquent moderator. The Dream Unfinished founder Eun Lee offered some fiery remarks. Scholar Ashley Jackson shared her rich insights on Margaret Bonds. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a noted law professor and co-founder of the African American Policy Forum, drew us into a moving remembrance of the dozens of African American women—ranging from a girl of seven to a 93-year-old—who have been killed by police in recent years. She invited us to stand and call out the names of the deceased women—we had each been given an image of one, labelled with her name—to the counterpoint of evocative singing improvised by a female vocalist. I did not catch the singer’s name (she was not named in the program), but she was truly a sensitive artist, creating a blues-inspired keening for the victims. This process brought together the audience as part of a musical work, bringing the names of the victims (and their faces, as audience members held up the images) into living memory and as individuals into our feelings of concern and compassion.
Vijay Iyer (Jazz pianist) commented about the problem that the orchestral musicians were experiencing: too much “WTP” — “waiting to play” —and wryly noted, that as a speaker, he was part of that problem. After all, an orchestra is a large and complicated organism to have on stage and not playing. While I judge the evening a complete success, that was the one flaw, that it wound up being twice as long as the two hours that were announced. And as exciting as it was to see the full house, the numbers had considerably dwindled by the end. For anyone with children or with work the next morning, staying out at an event until 11:30 is not a practicality.
I’ve been pondered how the evening might have been shortened, and at first I considered the possibility that the excepts from Ethel Smyth’s The Prison (a work for chorus, orchestra, and two vocal soloists) might have been omitted. After all, unlike the three other composers, she was not American and not Black. The program note and (the impassioned) speaker Gina Belafonte described Smyth’s commitment to women’s rights and her determination to break down barriers to women in music, thus making a case for her inclusion on the program as an inspiring figure and leader in a fight for justice.
But after reflecting on this for more than a day, I decided the Smyth was programmatically essential for its thematic and musical content. The excerpts from Smyth’s The Prison, (setting text by Henry Brewster) and the work commissioned for the event, Yet Unheard, (by Courtney Bryan, to a text by Sharan Strange) both deal with a prisoner contemplating death, and the expectation beyond death, and the question of what meaning will be ascribed to their life. Smyth/Brewster’s Prisoner may be heard as a generic “Everyman,” in dialogue with his Soul, but that “Everyman” can serve to illuminate the final hours of Sandra Bland, in a shadowy but urgent counterpoint of Bryan/Strange’s work that was written to directly address Bland’s circumstances, feelings, and the impact of her death.
It’s tempting to label both works Oratorios, although neither set of authors used that term, probably wanting to avoid its links to Christianity. But the genre carries solemnity and importance that is central to how both these works make a large statements about the value of human life and the very essence of the human condition. Thus the two profound oratorios served as centers of gravity for each half of the event. Sandra Bland’s life was cut short prematurely, and we are deprived of what she would have contributed to society, as well as saddened by that loss. Death is not a leave-taking, these two great vocal/orchestral works remind us; those who are remembered do not die, they live on through their work in the hearts of those who remain.
In Bryan/Strange’s Yet Unheard, Sandra Bland galvanizes us by her determination (conveyed by the music and Helga Davis’s electrifying voice), and by the responsibility that she leaves with us. Davis pointed at us, jabbing a finger – “you, you, and you!” — to emphasize this solemn responsibility and our role, our commitment, to keeping her memory alive, and to continue the struggle for justice.
The two texts, both poetic and philosophical, written over a century apart, bear comparison; for instance, these excerpts.
From Yet Unheard:
But I know truth spreads.
No stone of ignorance
can stand against it forever.
Silence will be shattered
By its piercing notes.
Strength will rise along its path.
Yes! We sing her name, clear
And open in this place …
We’ll transmute her death to justice,
Make freedom flourish in her wake.
From The Prison:
If I were set free and could speak to men
What would I have to say?
Tell them that no man lives in vain,
That some small part of our work,
For reasons unknown to us, has been tossed aloft
And garnered in forever.
This is no leavetaking
Let there be banners and music
Helga Davis, as vocalist in Yet Unheard, offered a dramatic tour-de-force, singing Sharan Strange’s poetic interpretation of Sandra Bland’s feelings (in the first person), while the chorus offered reflections, and in some cases underscored the words of the soloist. Davis’ vast range (spanning over three octaves) carried her from a dusky baritone to an impassioned cutting soprano.
Just a few months ago, The Prison had its U.S. premiere (reviewed here), and The Dream Unfinished, in these excerpts, gave the (partial) first performance of the version with full orchestra (conducted with deftness and precision by James Blachly; Kelly Hall-Tompkins was energizing and virtuosic as concertmaster). Dashon Burton (baritone) brought a singular presence to the role of The Prisoner, and Marlissa Hudson (soprano) as His Soul, was truly angelic and sublime. In the tone-poem, “The First Glimmer of Dawn,” the brilliance of Smyth’s use of orchestral color was apparent, as was the outstanding musicianship of the orchestra; the trumpet solo (evoking a bugle) was haunting and stunningly evocative.
A complete performance of Smyth’s The Prison with orchestra is long overdue. And to pair it with Courtney Bryan’s Yet Unheard would make a brilliant stroke, one of which Dame Ethel, with her strong sense of social justice, would have approved.
While this was only The Dream Unfinished’s second orchestral concert (the group also organizes a chamber series), they are truly achieving monumental importance in bringing classical music to bear on the vital message of Black Lives Matter. I hope that Boston ensembles will learn much from their example, and maybe even that The Dream Unfinished might perform in Boston.