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.
My graduation will be here (hopefully) before I know it. With the end of my career as a student in the visible distance, I’m filled with mixed emotions and ideas concerning my future – specifically in music. As much as I’ve enjoyed working as a “professional” in the freelance scene in Los Angeles and the Memphis area, I have to decide whether I’m going to continue chasing these pavements or settle down where I’m happy and content. The only thing we have as people to assist in decisions like these is our life experience, and for myself, those experiences themselves are mixed.
Before moving to Los Angeles, one of my biggest “gigs” was playing with the South Arkansas Symphony, about 4 hours south of Memphis. I enjoyed it very much, from a “gaining experience” point of view, but at the end of the day it was a lot like going to a regular job sometimes. No matter how much you love your work, there are days when you’d just rather be doing something else, and I’m no exception to that. Even though I’m much busier in L.A. than I was in Memphis, I’d consider the American Youth Symphony my main “gig” here. I love the group dearly, don’t think that I don’t, but again – sometimes Saturday mornings would be more enjoyable at a champagne brunch with your husband than at a rehearsal. Occasionally I’ve dealt with musicians in these groups (and others) that I don’t enjoy at all, but the applause from a receptive and thankful audience after a great performance, for me, is the drug that keeps me coming back. That, and the money, of course. Never, though, have I been exposed to the smug, arrogant superiority I saw on a blog of another musician this weekend.
Some time ago an orchestra in some city had auditions for a position that, apparently didn’t go so well (I’m going to try to remain as anonymous as possible, because I don’t want anyone coming for me, yet). One of the panel members, upon deciding that no one should be chosen, felt it necessary to blog this experience, describing himself and the rest of the panel as being “embarrassed…for the way our instrument was being treated”. I get what he was going for in the article – ‘this is what NOT to do at an audition’, but before I’d spend my time talking about how everyone sucked, I’d think about what I could do better on my end, like the invitation process for the auditions. This specific orchestra only invites candidates to audition, so clearly there is an issue with this process if you don’t like anyone you chose to come. When I sat on the American Youth Symphony panel for a number of auditions last year, I chose not to disclose my feelings of the auditions publically (and I still won’t), because it would make me look like a pretentious jerk. It’s easy to talk smack from the other side of the curtain, and doing so only adds insult to injury, especially if no one is chosen. That in itself, to me, is laughable. I can hear them now – “It’s too bad that none of the people we invited to this audition are good enough to join us and sit next to me”. It’s really funny.
Maybe my little rant is uncalled for, but it raises questions about my future when I consider the negative experiences behind being an orchestral musician. Do I want to mix myself up in nonsense like this for the sake of music, or be around people I actually like everyday? How long would I allow myself to sit next to someone I hate, or look at a conductor I think is useless? Is this what I’m looking forward to? All music performance students should consider these questions, because music requires an emotional investment and connection with others, and that’s hard if your cohorts like boosting themselves up by standing on top of other people’s failures. As for me, I’m going to work hard to make sure people don’t think I’m a jerk, because personally, my ego doesn’t require it. :-)