The New York Philharmonic’s March to Liberation program demonstrates that a race-based music program need not be at odds with excellence.
Classical music’s racial reckoning, triggered by the George Floyd riots, is not slowing down. The imperative to get more black musicians onto the concert stage and more black-composed works onto an ensemble’s music stands still influences the choice of soloists, conductors, and repertoire. Most typically, black performers and black compositions are slotted into the traditional concert format, usually built around at least one canonical warhorse. At other times, however, an entire program is given over to blackness.
That was the case with the New York Philharmonic’s program, The March to Liberation, presented on March 2 and March 4. The concert marked the orchestra’s “commitment to social justice and reimagined audiences,” in the words of program annotator Mark Burford. Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s CEO, explained that the theme of liberation, one of four such themes imposed on the 2022–2023 season, reflects “critical considerations that face not only the Philharmonic but, indeed, society.” Conductor Leslie Dunner said that he was not conducting a concert but a “cultural-immersion event.”
This cultural-immersion event presented the world premiere of a New York Philharmonic commission, Gathering Song, by Courtney Bryan (born 1982), and two New York Philharmonic premieres: William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 2 in G Minor, Song of a New Race (1937), and Adolphus Hailstork’s Done Made My Vow, A Ceremony (1985). In addition to the conductor, the vocal soloists in the Bryan and Hailstork works were black; the “director” of the event was black; the video artist who created the video projections above the stage was black. The soloists and conductor wore Kente cloth, kufi caps, and other African-inflected accessories. Only the orchestra and the New York Philharmonic chorus were not exclusively black. That omission will be corrected on March 20, when the Philharmonic hosts a concert by Chineke! Orchestra, Europe’s “first majority-Black and ethnically diverse orchestra,” as the press materials put it.
The director of the March to Liberation, Tazewell Thompson, has benefited already from the post-Floyd reckoning. In August 2020, the longstanding head of opera studies at the Manhattan School of Music, Dona Vaughn, was run out of town by student agitators, who preposterously accused her of racism. The school could have consulted with Vaughn’s illustrious black protégés, such as Metropolitan Opera assistant conductor Howard Watkins, who would have testified to Vaughn’s lack of racial animus. Instead, Vaughn was fired with virtually no due process and Thompson was hastily installed as her replacement.
Thompson wrote the program introduction to the March to Liberation—an awkward call to “allow the specificity of these unique Black composers to give yourselves permission to gather together and enter this music world from before and from this moment.” Tazewell also contributed the poem for Courtney Bryan’s Gathering Song:
. . . Liberate
To divide us. . . .
Fortunately, Bryan’s musical writing for Gathering Song was in a different league entirely. The work bursts open with a wash of orchestral color, recalling a John Williams film score. It quickly reaches a set of early climaxes, punctuated by the horns. Style and mood alternate rapidly: the cocktail cool of a brush on a snare drum was followed by a hot Latin-American beat delivered by an eclectic array of percussion instruments. (The liberal use of a vastly expanded, multicultural percussion section is a signal trait of contemporary classical music.) Bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, in a sky-blue cap and all-black outfit, possesses a pleasing covered sound and offered a forceful delivery. Tazewell’s text may have been too mediocre to provide the composer much inspiration, however, since the score’s vocal writing possessed little interest.
William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 2 presented the opposite dilemma: its second movement cried out to be sung, but there was no singer in sight. The movement begins with a descending fifth; Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” seemed to be waiting in the wings. Kern’s song premiered in 1936, Still’s Symphony a year later. This is not to suggest plagiarism but rather the sheer tunefulness of the era that birthed the Great American Songbook. Still, who lived from 1895 to 1978, was a full participant in that era, writing for musical theater, film, and jazz, as well as for the concert hall and opera stage. After that opening fifth, Still’s melody takes a different course from the Kern, more suave in its unexpected changes of direction and subtle shifts of harmony, but just as ready to waft Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers off to a terpsichorean paradise. Still layers jazz harmonies over a pulsing waltz in the first movement; throughout the symphony, one hears the influence of Harry Burleigh and George Gershwin. Orchestral voices are clearly distinguished, with a particular emphasis on flutes and harp.
Ultimately, though, the work overstays its welcome. Like many pieces composed in the wake of the German symphonic tradition, Still’s symphony cannot sustain a long form. There is a good deal of melodic repetition, transposed to nearby keys, but without thematic development. It is difficult to distinguish one cymbal-saturated climax from another. This episodic construction plagued the other two works in the program as well, though, in fairness, their form was never symphonic to begin with.
Adolphus Hailstork’s Done Made My Vow, A Ceremony brought singers back on stage. The work is a paean to black civil rights heroes and an exhortation to black achievement and pride. An incantatory refrain (written by Hailstork) is declaimed first by a narrator (here the retired bass-baritone Simon Estes), then later taken up by the soloists and a chorus: “My name is Toil. My mother is Strength. My future: achievement. My goal is pride . . . So I’ll fight for the right to be free, to proclaim to the world: ‘I’m a man; look at me.’”
This emphasis on individual uplift dates the piece. Few black activists urge “achievement” today, choosing instead to lambaste systemic racism. The pride-through-learning theme was arguably antique even in 1985, when the work premiered. It is partly explained by the circumstances of its commission: the 50th anniversary of Norfolk State University, created during the Depression to show that a “future offering great possibilities [to blacks] was achievable,” in the words of the university’s website.
Done Made My Vow opens mysteriously, with a long hushed high note in the violins, while harmonically restless tone clusters wander off into distant parts of the universe. Something momentous is aborning. Upon the phrase, “I’ve walked this land; I’ve tilled the soil; In the name of this nation I have died,” horns resolve the amorphous texture into bittersweet cadences. The rest of the work is tonally centered, albeit with episodes of pungent dissonance. “Singers don’t often sing in 12-tone technique,” Hailstork has observed dryly.
The first of many excerpts from the Psalms throws the musical throttle into high gear; the cheerful syncopation and manic percussion of this “give thanks” section echo Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. Hailstork makes ample use of brass fanfares while avoiding Copland-esque kitsch. Elsewhere the writing is noble and stately.
The centerpiece of Done Made My Vow calls out the names of civil rights activists, from Frederick Douglass to A. Philip Randolph, and declares them “‘guilty’ before the bench of injustice.” The original 1985 score ended this roster with the electrifying “Free at last!” conclusion of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In 2009, Hailstork replaced the King passage with excerpts from Barack Obama’s writings. This change was not a rhetorical improvement. And the conceit that Obama, too, was deemed by the court of opinion “Guilty!” for “having the courage and vision to become President of these United States of America!” is fanciful.
Done Made My Vow ends thrillingly, with an ecstatic, prolonged outburst from chorus and orchestra. The finale’s lineage includes Mahler and such musicals as Candide, whose spine-tingling conclusions continued to offer catharsis after serialism had sucked the juice out of symphonic writing.
The evening’s greatest performer discovery was the New York Philharmonic Chorus. Newly created to go with Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall (formerly Avery Fisher Hall), the chorus, prepared by Malcolm Merriweather, sang with transparent diction and rhythmic precision. It finally provides the overrated Metropolitan Opera chorus with stiff competition, right in the Met’s backyard. Orchestral conductor Leslie Dunner, on loan from the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra, brought a propulsive energy to the program, expertly navigating the sometimes complex meters.
It was not clear what Tazewell Thompson’s designation as concert “director” meant. The March to Liberation’s only stage action consisted of the tenor, soprano, and narrator in the Hailstork walking on stage for their solos, then off again. Perhaps Thompson’s direction consisted of soliciting and overseeing the video projections that flickered above the orchestra throughout the concert. These washed out, black-and-white images, by Rasean Davonté Johnson, were distracting and often impenetrable in their meaning. Montages included: fast motion shots of urban pedestrians, slow motion shots of urban pedestrians, fast motion shots of museum visitors walking through a gallery, Joshua trees in silhouette, closeups of cherry blossoms and water lilies, and a prolonged sequence of a galloping horse, whose rider’s torso was cut off by the top of the screen.
Even the footage from twentieth-century civil rights protests was less than gripping. One image was simply jarring: a yard sign with “Michael Brown, 18 years” written on it. Minutes before Brown had his fatal encounter with Ferguson, Missouri, Police Officer Darren Wilson in August 2014, he had stolen a box of cigars from a convenience store and had assaulted the store clerk. Brown then assaulted Wilson and tried to grab Wilson’s gun. The Obama Justice Department declared the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” mythology around Brown a fabrication and cleared Wilson of violating Brown’s civil rights. Brown does not belong in the pantheon of leaders rightly celebrated by Done Made My Vow.
(The March to Liberation was not the only recent New York Philharmonic program to have been marred by video. Just two weeks earlier, the orchestra gave the New York premiere of Thomas Adès’s piano concerto In Seven Days (2008). In this case, the injury was self-inflicted. Adès conceived the concerto with video accompaniment in mind. The result was just as distracting. There was too much happening in this high modernist work to be absorbed in one hearing, even without one’s brain being overstimulated by flashing pixels—in this case, arranged into identical images in the video screen’s six panels. Impresarios in earlier centuries might well have jumped at the opportunity to pair music with video, but the idea of music as an abstract form requiring full attention was an aesthetic advance from which we should not retreat, regardless of panic over shrinking subscription numbers.)
The audience for the March to Liberation contained more black members than usual for a Philharmonic concert. Such audience “diversity” is the supreme desideratum of institutional funders. Whether those “diverse” patrons will return when the theme is not blackness is the million-dollar question. Certainly, the performances rousingly demonstrated an orchestra’s particular sonic charisma.
The program for the March to Liberation was easily justified on nonracial grounds, however. All three works were unequivocally worth hearing in their own right, especially if you yearn for music outside the overplayed canon. The same cannot be said for many of the compositions now circulating by the dread triumvirate of Florence Price, Jesse Montgomery, and Joseph Bologne, the latter an unalloyed mediocrity.
But the March to Liberation was also justified as a race-based project. Critics of identity politics are inclined to regard black programming with a marked degree of irony. Yet those same critics, of which I am one, would accept an all-Bohemian or all-Polish program without raising an eyebrow. The issue then becomes: Is there a black tradition or a black sound in classical music comparable, say, to the Spanish tradition that could justify race-based programming? There is, even if its most frequently invoked component—the use of spirituals—is its least compelling aspect. Ragtime and jazz are a much more vibrant contribution to classical musical vocabulary.
While racial reclamation is a valid enterprise, the degree to which black composers were denied a hearing in the last century should not be exaggerated. The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, premiered Still’s second symphony. Still received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1934; the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony performed his works during his lifetime. New York City Opera produced his opera, Troubled Island, in 1949. If Still fell out of circulation, it was because he ignored the dogmas of serialism. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performed Adolphus Hailstork’s master thesis in 1966, long before the Black Lives Matter Movement made such selections de rigueur. To be sure, black musicians faced the same heartbreaking contempt in the first half of the twentieth century as blacks throughout America, but the musical world was not a wall of apartheid.
Today, however, to pretend that being black is a professional handicap is ludicrous. Courtney Bryan claims that as a “Black woman in the classical world,” the thing to do is “not to bring attention to that.” “Some will lose interest in you,” she told the New York Philharmonic’s program annotator, but “hiding” never helps. Opera America recently offered a three-day Racial Justice Opera Forum, with multiple sessions on “Dismantling Racism.” In reality, most musical organizations are jumpstarting black composers and black performers ahead of their less racially valuable peers.
As the March to Liberation demonstrated, such musical preferences need not be at odds with excellence. The New York Philharmonic was right to commemorate the tragically long battle to recognize blacks’ basic dignity. That history cannot be overtold. And the orchestra was right to celebrate the contributions of black composers to our musical inheritance, contributions that, like every piece of great music, expand our knowledge of what human beings have felt and yearned for.
Photo: Roman Tiraspolsky/iStock
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