Yesterday I received the great honor of once again performing with the Southeast Symphony in their 64th annual Black History concert. This orchestra was organized in 1948 as a medium for black classical musicians to perform and learn new works in a culture that, back then, was still very segregated. Today the group is acknowledged as the world’s oldest and (almost) only predominantly black symphony orchestra. Each piece on the program had specific purpose and meaning, and the audience, as well as the performers, seemed to enjoy it thoroughly.
The concert opened with the Star Spangled Banner, which was beautifully arranged by Dean Dixon. The emotion started for me with this piece, because so often we hear our national anthem botched and “over done” by pop artists, but the way it was played was honorific, humble, and from the heart – as it should be. Following this opening were pieces by black composers, Gary Powell Nash, Adolphus Hailstork, and William Grant Still (the latter two have pieces for solo bassoon), ranging from large and triumphant in how far we’ve come in the fight for Civil Rights, to dissonantly retrospective of the road we had to travel to get here. Ending the first half of the concert was Joseph Schwantner’s “New Morning for the World – Daybreak of Freedom for Narrator and Orchestra”. I’d actually performed this piece with the University of Memphis Wind Ensemble some years back, but this arrangement for orchestra really put the message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. forward, with narration by William Allen Young (known for his role as “Moesha’s” father).
After intermission, a new piece was commissioned by the orchestra entitled “Subtle Hues of Blackbirds”, composed by black composer and musician Renee C. Baker. The way she explained the piece really brought light to her ideas of how each of us, as individuals, is different, yet the same. We tend to focus on the subtle hues that divide us and make us different, when at the end of the day we should all walk down the street and live our lives as one people, because we are! The juxtaposition of rhythms and key areas in the piece created a sound that could be considered confusing or chaotic representing the mixing of different people and cultures in this country, but this all came together eventually with a large unison, representing her ideas of the oneness as a human race we all should attach ourselves to. The piece ended, appropriately, with the sounds of birds coming from the flute section.
Next, three spirituals arranged specifically for the Southeast Symphony and soloists were performed, including “Amazing Grace” (dedicated to Whitney Houston), “A City Called Heaven”, and “His Eye is on the Sparrow”. These songs brought back old church memories for me, and the elegance and power behind those lyrics once gave hope to slaves who had nothing to look forward to but a better life after death. Although American race-based slavery is in our past, these songs can still be applied to whatever we may be dealing with in our lives today. The final number was Carmen Dragon’s famous arrangement of “America the Beautiful”, which reiterated the fact that Black History is indeed American History. An encore was called, and we performed a fast, exciting arrangement of “Wade in the Water”, which is probably one of the most famous spirituals still sung today.
Black History month is only halfway over, so take the time to read the lyrics to the spirituals mentioned above, and see if you can apply any of them to your life or current situation. As for me, I “let not [my] heart be troubled”, even though sometimes “I just don’t know which way to turn”, because despite the current Civil Rights issue we’re facing in our society today, I know that IT GETS BETTER. Most importantly though, I think we should embrace the subtle hues that make us unique, while remembering that at the end of the day, we are all one people. Black History is American History.