What was it like to be one of the thousands of listeners who gathered in baseball-stadium-turned-opera-house in Cleveland on the shores of Lake Erie on a warm summer evening in 1932 to attend the world premiere of Tom-Tom, an opera by the composer Shirley Graham? What did these listeners expect of the opera — an epic of African diasporic history, and the first opera by a Black woman to be performed by a major company? Were they surprised by the insistent drumbeat that marked the opera’s beginning? Were they delighted when the modern, jazzy voice of a cabaret singer appeared in the third act? What did they discuss with their fellow operagoers at intermission? Did they agree with the reviewer who would soon proclaim Tom-Tom a “revolutionary project”? What, to this audience, was the opera’s legacy?
These questions were on my mind as I listened to the Boston Landmarks Orchestra play the overture to Tom-Tom on July 26, 2023. Like the opera’s premiere, this performance took place outdoors on a warm summer evening; nearby, the Charles River sparkled in the waning sunlight. If the size of the audience did not match the tens of thousands of listeners who reportedly attended in 1932, the crowd was large and enthusiastic, their picnic blankets and lawn chairs dotting the expansive lawn in front of the Hatch Shell. Last Wednesday’s event also resembled its historical counterpart in that — despite the passage of nearly a century — we heard it in a cultural landscape in which symphonic and operatic music by Black women is programmed all too rarely.
Given this context, the concert which included the overture to Tom-Tom made for an exceptional occasion: a program titled “Seen/Unseen: The Symphonic Legacy of Black American Women.” Comprised entirely of music written by Black women, the program was curated by Christopher Wilkins, the ensemble’s music director and conductor; and Terri Lyne Carrington, the acclaimed jazz drummer and composer who also serves as Artistic Director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice. In addition to the orchestra, an ensemble known for its commitment to making orchestral music accessible across Boston, the event featured conductor Damali Willingham, soprano Louise Toppin, tenor Robert Mack, and Carrington’s ensemble: Anabel Gil Díaz, flute; Milena Casado Fauquet, trumpet; Max Ridley, bass; Anastassiya Petrova, piano; Val Jeanty, electronics; and Christiana Hunte, dancer.
The selections testified to the breadth and depth of the Black women’s compositional tradition. Beginning with a fantasia (by James V. Cockerham) on “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and the Tom-Tom overture, it also featured music by Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Undine Smith Moore, Mary Lou Williams, Nkeiru Okoye, Jessie Montgomery, and Carrington – a list that includes some of the most creative composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Although many orchestras today are taking steps to program the work of women and people of color, longstanding conventions mean that their music still tends to be presented as if it were a novelty or exception to the rule. As a result, if orchestral music by African American women remains a concert-hall rarity, scarcer still are events which foreground the connections among Black women composers — the fact that they, as the musicologist Samantha Ege has argued, “thrive in ensemble,” and are best understood as members and products of rich musical communities.
The collective impulse that guided the program also became evident in the event’s style of presentation. A pre-concert community conversation (I was honored to be one of the participants) involved a rich, wide-ranging discussion of the legacy of Black women composers. Supplementing the extensive program notes, various conductors, performers, and community members introduced works from the stage. Louise Toppin, for example, preceded her performance of selected songs by Margaret Bonds with a spoken introduction to the composer, which emphasized her close relationships with Florence Price and Langston Hughes. Not only did these comments enable the audience to hear directly from a performer who is also one of the foremost experts on Bonds’s music, but they also introduced listeners to the entire expressive world from which Bonds emerged.
As a scholar of African American opera, I found it especially meaningful to hear the overture to Tom-Tom, a piece I have been thinking and writing about for more than a decade. I first came across the opera’s score in 2011, while conducting research in the Shirley Graham Du Bois Papers at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library. Between 2018 and 2020, I organized and curated multiple performances of excerpts from the opera, by singers with piano accompaniment, and marked the first public appearance of music from the opera since its 1932 premiere. But I had never heard Graham’s music from a full orchestra — nor had anyone else, since the original orchestrations were lost, and only a piano-vocal score remains. Orchestrated for the occasion by David Kempers, the overture had a tantalizing effect. Fragments of Graham’s expansive artistic vision percolated throughout: I could hear the rhythmic propulsion, inspired by the title drum, that animates the piece; the incorporation of spirituals; the quasi-martial rhythms that accompany a shipbuilding scene in the full opera. The experience amplified my eagerness to hear a production of the entire work, to experience it — somewhat — as its first listeners did in 1932.
The overture to Tom-Tom set the tone for a program of striking abundance. Willingham conducted an invigorating, lithe reading of Price’s Dances in the Canebrakes. Toppin and Mack brought a deliberate intensity to Moore’s moving Scenes from the Life of a Martyr, an oratorio written in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. A rapid-fire mood shift ushered in Mary Lou Williams’s Zodiac Suite, a dazzlingly creative, joyous work that has enjoyed a recent resurgence of interest. Heard in the aftermath of these two monumental works, two shorter contemporary pieces by Okoye and Montgomery seemed to emerge directly out of this mid-twentieth-century tradition. In Okoye’s Voices Shouting Out, performed here with impressive energy and vitality, the back-and-forth between the proud saunter of an HBCU marching band and the sweet sounds of a church choir evoked the genre-crossing creativity of Williams’s suite. In Montgomery’s Soul Force, I heard echoes of the grandeur of Moore’s oratorio.
Guest curator and performer Terri Lyne Carrington dedicated the final portion to her own music. Vast and spectacular, it takes up space in every sense of the word: her work calls for extensive forces (an electronics artist, a dancer, and a jazz ensemble supplemented the orchestra); engages deeply with a panoply of genres and media, and insists upon conceptual and creative freedom. Mosaic Triad; No Boxes (Nor Words) combined two works from 2011 and 2013, respectively, offering a portrait of an earlier stage of Carrington’s career. Seen/Unseen, which premiered in 2022, is a multimedia suite which takes up the monumental subject of Black women’s lives, labors, and imaginations. Each member of the ever-growing ensemble onstage brought a focused intensity to this profound work; the brilliance of the collective sound was augmented by dancer Christiana Hunte’s virtuosic athleticism. Its first movement features an original poem by Carrington, which speaks to themes of unity, resilience, and freedom. As I listened to her words, I was struck not only by the richness of the kaleidoscopic sonic and visual world that Seen/Unseen crafts, but also by the compositional legacy into which it enters: one in which, as Carrington writes, generations of Black women composers have remained, against all odds, “purposeful and driven by hope for the dream.”
Lucy Caplan is Assistant Professor of Music at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Previously, she was Assistant Director of Studies and Lecturer on History and Literature at Harvard University. She received a Ph.D. in American Studies and African American Studies from Yale University in 2019. Her first book, “High Culture on the Lower Frequencies: African Americans and Opera in the Early Twentieth Century,” is under contract with Harvard University Press.