Well, here we are. Three days have passed since the twentieth annual Sphinx Competition for Black and Latino string players and SphinxConnect, an annual gathering held in tandem with the competition. SphinxConnect was a tremendous time, a time including three days of discussions ranging from profound and to some "difficult" conversations about the industry to enlightening talks about working in Europe, finances, maintaining networks, navigating institutions and - yes - YOGA. The entire list of topics can be found at www.sphinxmusic.org, and there are links to video documentation of the sessions.
The highlight of Sphinx weekends are the competition finals, which serve as a real opportunity to hear young people of both Black and Latino descent perform at the TOP of their game as well as to hear new works commissioned by the Sphinx Organization. This year, we were so fortunate and FLOORED both to witness the artistry of Junior Division winner Ifetayo Ali during the annual Honors Concert and to have a difficult time choosing one artist who stood above all others during the Senior Division Finals.
This year's premiere was particularly relevant and poignant as it was the world premiere of the fully orchestrated version of Joel Thompson's Seven Last Words of the Unarmed. Originally premiered in 2016, this work contains seven statements closely aligned with Joseph Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross. The text, comprised of the last words spoken by seven unarmed men, is well known to those who have followed the news over recent years:
I. Kenneth Chamberlain - "Officers, why do you have your guns out?"
II. Trayvon Martin - "What are you following me for?"
III. Amadou Diallo - "Mom, I'm going to college."
IV. Michael Brown - "I don't have a gun! Stop shooting!"
V. Oscar Grant - "You shot me! You shot me."
VI. John Crawford - "It's not real."
VII. Eric Garner - "I can't breathe."
On a personal note: while listening to this work I saw many audience members crying, especially during the movement honoring the life of Oscar Grant. I could not cry: I sat, listening, amazed, and personally overwhelmed. The level of both musical and topical commitment exhibited by the members of the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra and the University of Michigan Men's Glee Club on that afternoon is something that I shall remember for the rest of my life. How can anyone present in the Max Fisher Music Center forget the choir, almost a capella, during the fifth movement: voices randomly saying "You shot me", accompanied by the slap of a hand against the chest.
Seven Last Words is one of FOUR symphonic works composed over the last four years (if I am wrong, please correct me) that deal with the issue of brutality - whether at the hands of policemen, self-proclaimed vigilantes, or "terrorists" - that I have heard within the space of twelve months. The first one, which was premiered in Washington DC and later performed in Baltimore, was Judah Adashi's Rise which featured poetry by Tameka Cage Conley.
Months later in 2016, I had the honor of performing two works that dealt with tragedy. In September 2016 the Morgan State University Choir and the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra premiered Mother's Lament: So Many Names Unknown, a three-movement work by James Lee III based on poems by Vincent Dion Stringer and dedicated to all mothers who have lost children to violence.
In October 2016, those of us who performed at the Colour of Music Festival in Charleston, South Carolina had the tremendous pleasure of meeting composer Ahmed Al Abaca and performing the premiere of his Across The Calm Waters of Heaven: A Piece for Peace. Mr. Al Abaca is from San Bernadino and this was his response to the tragedy of the summer of 2016. This work is particularly special as it evokes the response from performers that Ralph Vaughan Williams' Rhosymedre elicits from young string players who, while perhaps not fully understanding, continuously find themselves profoundly moved as many of us did in our early years.
So we have these, and included in this canon is the work by Mr. Henderson. All stirring, moving, relevant works for the concert stage. I find myself after reviewing these works left with questions for the industry.
My questions: will these works survive? Shall we hear them again? Will orchestras across the United States and the world take these works and present them as they have presented Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony, Schwantner's New Morning for the World: Daybreak of Freedom, Arvo Part's Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber's Adagio (which has become the American "go-to" piece to express any deep emotional sentiment)?
My answer: these works have to survive. Specifically, they must be wholly embraced by American orchestras as our large ensembles are still viewed as the prominent exponents of concert music.
These works have to be programmed, regularly - while the conversation surrounding American orchestras still includes questions regarding "relevance", demographic diversity and inclusion, the continued programming and presentation of these works will show that those "in control" have a profound social conscience. If our orchestras are truly "museums", then we have an obligation to treat them as such and include some "museum pieces" that are just as disturbing as the work of Willem De Kooning.
They have to - simply because the works chronicled here are as worthy of performance as any work written by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Mahler, Strauss, Schumann, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Walton and Holst. The works mentioned here are simply programmatic, although not based on mythology as the tone poems of Jean Sibelius. These works are MORE than worthy, well-conceived, well-written, and thoughtful works for the concert audience. Furthermore, should these works have short stage lives and longer shelf-lives, that will say more about the industry known as American orchestral life than we are all ready to admit.
And that's all for today...