Composer Voices Optimism In Time Of Racial Distress

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PROFILE – For its virtual Opening Night Celebration Concert, the Philadelphia Orchestra will give the first onstage performance of Valerie Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout, composed in response to COVID-19 and commissioned by the orchestra. It was premiered in June as an online presentation and recorded remotely by orchestra members under music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

The Sept. 30 season opener, streamed on the orchestra’s Digital Stage and available for repeat viewing through Oct. 7, also features soprano Angel Blue in “D’amor sull’ali rosee” from Verdi’s Il trovatore, Mozart’s Symphony No. 29, pianist Lang Lang in a remote performance, a virtual collaboration with actor/comedian Steve Martin on banjo, and an appearance by a Philadelphia favorite, tennis legend Billie Jean King. Nézet-Séguin conducts, with the reduced orchestra socially distanced in pre-recorded performances at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts.

‘Seven O’Clock Shout’ composer Valerie Colman

Coleman, the founder and former flutist of the quintet Imani Winds, which is made up of musicians of color, had a previous commission with the Philadelphia Orchestra, her orchestrated version of Umoja, Anthem for Unity. Its world premiere on Sept. 19, 2019, was the first time the orchestra had ever performed a classical work by a living African-American women.

The composer-flutist was interviewed by phone from her home in Florida, where she is an assistant professor at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami.

CVNA: Your Seven O’Clock Shout is an important part of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s virtual opening night concert. What is your relationship with the orchestra and this piece in particular?

Valerie Coleman: It came about because early in May I heard from the orchestra that they wanted a work that addressed what is going on right now. They wanted me to compose a short work that would allow the orchestra to come together at the time when orchestral performances were coming to a halt and they were wondering how to forge ahead in the midst of the pandemic. So the orchestra went to the idea of making a virtual recording that would be one of the capstones of their gala in June.

The piece was written in a two-week time frame encompassing the aspects of the engineer mixing together the recordings by the instrumentalists along with the video component. The idea of solidarity was perhaps the impetus for the work. I had to include some elements to reflect what we are living through. The solo trumpet represents the feeling of being alone in a lush tropical landscape to suggest how the Earth was rejuvenating itself while everyone was in quarantine. At the same time, I wanted to harken to the idea of frontline workers and how they are selflessly, tirelessly nurturing. Then going into this “shout” that happens at seven o’clock where you hear whistles, chairs, pots and pans clanging, and so many rhythms, which I likened to a parade. It was fun watching the video production, but now that the orchestra is going to play it together for broadcast to open the season, I am so excited about how that is going to look and sound.

Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the ensemble in Valerie Coleman’s ‘Seven O’Clock Shout’ on YouTube.

CVNA: The racial unrest in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others at the hands of the police has sparked intense conversations about diversity and inclusion in the classical music world. In May, you made a speech at the League of American Orchestras virtual annual meeting, which touched on these topics. Do you feel like we are moving in the right direction towards progress? Do you see hope for any progress?

Coleman: I do see hope. Any creative person will tell you that hope runs hand in hand with creativity, so for me it is a matter of helping along that process by joining other creators in how we look at the changing times and the tide that is slowly turning for everyone to come together. We have to acknowledge this as a moment of nurturing perspectives, empathy, and getting people to understand one another’s point of view and plight.

Black people have gone through so much that our tolerance has made us tough and able to endure. I have been asking myself what role do I have as a Black person in the healing of a nation. At the same time, for perspectives to be opened up, there has to be a level of nurturing. Everything that I write comes from that viewpoint of healing. To me it is one of those things that each of us has to ask ourself: “What role do I play in the healing of our society and bringing people together?”

CVNA: How has the pandemic affected your compositional output and performance opportunities?

Coleman: Right now I am working on a flute, clarinet, and bassoon trio for Zoom. It occurred to me that Zoom has many different rules and you try to abide by them because it is not meant for performing. Because of the latency of the sound, you can’t play in sync with one another, so I have been thinking about what if a piece was created around that concept.

I am also doing a few concerts with the flute community. I will be the featured guest artist for the Florida Flute Association in January and the same thing in Seattle and Portland, OR, in May. What is cool about that is I get to bring my music to a place that has had civil unrest. I am already thinking about the repertoire that will address the kind of togetherness we need right now. One is a work of mine called Fanmi Imèn, which is Haitian Creole for “The Human Family.” It’s the same title as Maya Angelou’s poem that says “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” Another work I will be performing is my Wish sonatine for flute and piano, which is about the Middle Passage, the trafficking of humans from Africa’s shores to different places around the world. Those are the types of messages that I like to put in my works because I feel that music is a vehicle to convey information that would otherwise fall on deaf ears.

CVNA: How do you see yourself as a mentor and perhaps helping to create a space for aspiring artists and flutists of color?

Coleman: That is a great question because it is very near and dear to my heart. Let me go back to Imani Winds as a point of reference. When I was with the group, we were touring a good 250 days of the year and that was a lot, but at the same time it allowed us to go all across the country. Whether it was a high school, community or collegiate setting, there was always a Black student present that looked at us with a sense of relief and excitement. Along the way, those kids have kept in touch about repertoire and recommendations, so that was built into who Imani Winds is as a kind of mentor to the Black students and musicians that we would meet. I am still very much in touch with them.

I used to work at the Music Advancement Program (MAP) that Anthony McGill (principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic) is now the head of at Juilliard. I was working there when I was just getting out of college with my master’s degree. To me, that was one of the most fulfilling things that I could possibly do. I was teaching music theory to young students of color who had no real knowledge of reading music or writing or anything theoretical. At the end of the two-year period, they would walk out the door having a collegiate level of music theory experience. The time spent teaching all of these things that I knew would be crucial to their development and to their future as musicians was really worthwhile.

A socially distanced Philadelphia Orchestra will play Valerie Coleman’s ‘Seven O’Clock Shout’ on its virtual Opening Night Celebration Concert, which will be streamed Sept. 30 to Oct. 6.

Today there are a lot of Black flutists out there in colleges that are doing great stuff. Every now and then they touch base with me, and I try my best to keep my finger on the pulse of the direction of music and how we as Black people participate in the classical music scene. Someone who comes to mind is Brandon George, a phenomenal flutist who is my successor in Imani Winds. I believe he is among the best in the world. His presence with the group is a blessing and his playing is remarkable.

Patrick D. McCoy holds a BM in Vocal Performance from Virginia State University and an MM in Church Music from Shenandoah Conservatory. He has written for the Washington Post, Early Music America, Classical Voice North America, The Afro-American Newspaper, CBS Washington, Early Music America, Examiner.com and ArtSong Update. He serves as organist/choirmaster at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Zion Parish, in Beltsville, Md., and is on the music faculty of Virginia State University. Visit http://www.patrickmccoy.com.

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