Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Boston Musical Intelligencer: “Sing Her Name” Commemorates Sandra Bland in Concert by The Dream Unfinished Orchestra at Cooper Union, New York

The Great Hall of Cooper Union

Florence Beatrice Smith Price (1887-1953) is profiled at, which features a comprehensive Works Lists by Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma,

is profiled at,
which features a comprehensive Works List and a 
by Dr. Dominique-
René de Lerma, 

John McLaughlin Williams
(The Dream Unfinished)

Terrance McKnight
(Marco Antonio)

Kelly Hall-Tompkins
(Brooklyn Public Library)

Marlissa Hudson

The Boston Musical Intelligencer

July 20, 2016

By Liane Curtis

The Dream Unfinished Orchestra gave an orchestral and choral concert at the Great Hall of Cooper Union [in New York City] last Wednesday. The musical tribute to black women harmed by racial injustice, female activists, and organizers of the historic Civil Rights and #BlackLivesMatter movement commemorated the one-year anniversary of the death of Sandra Bland.
A complex event, with orchestra, chorus, soloists, and including music by four composers, in addition to presentations or commentary by ten speakers, “Sing Her Name” constituted a powerful tribute to Sandra Bland and dozens of other female victims of racial violence. It also offered vivid testimony to music’s ability to bring communities together in healing. Such healing was greatly needed, in light of all the tragic events of the recent weeks.
The concert featured music by Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), Florence Price (1887-1953) and contemporary composer Courtney Bryan. The historic Great Hall was filled to near capacity (1000). Of this profound and satisfying event, much remained very vividly etched in my memory. First was the opportunity to hear orchestral works by Florence Price performed live, a first for me. I have two very treasured recordings of Price’s symphonic music, including her Symphony No. 3, two movements of which, “Juba: Allegro” and “Scherzo: Finale” were included in the concert. Price is known as the first African American woman to have a symphony performed by a major professional orchestra—her first, in E Minor by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933. Other noted successes followed.
I serve with pride as President of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, a non-profit organization devoted to continuing the legacy of The Women’s Philharmonic (the first orchestra to record Price’s music, in 2001, on a disc including Symphony No. 3 (1940), and tone poems The Oak and Mississippi River Suite available here). WPA also gave a Performance Grant to “The Dream Unfinished Concert” so our logo was included in the printed program, etc. So I certainly am not offering a dispasionate review, as one should not expect anyway in the case of a benefit concert. The ticket income was in support of these organizations: Center for Constitutional Rights, African American Policy Forum, and Black Women’s Blueprint.
John McLaughlin Williams led the orchestra in a highly energized reading of Price’s “Juba: Allegro” (the title referring to a dance of West African origin), with suppleness in the tempos, and an accelerando in the recall of the “A” section, and crisp articulation all around resulting in breathtaking exhilaration. This continued in the frenzy of the Scherzo, and the rousing conclusion brought the concert to a suitably uplifting end. With a compositional idiom that draws on African-American idioms, including Jazz, I was left pondering why Price’s name is not name as familiar to audiences as that of George Gershwin? The sad fact is that much of her music was lost after her death, and the re-discovery is ongoing. The newly discovered Price works that were premiered in January 2015 is discussed here).
Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement is more conservative; its harmonies, structure and pianistic gestures come clearly rooted in romantic and post-romantic European vocabularies, but its melodic idioms sound steeped in Negro spirituals. Michelle Cann, as the piano soloist, was a compelling, sparkling virtuoso, bringing this riveting work to life in its first New York performance. While the Concerto was performed frequently in Chicago after it was premiered in 1934, no full score or orchestral parts survived, only several piano scores. Composer Trevor Weston was commissioned by the Center for Black Music Research to re-orchestrate the work, and that version was premiered in 2011, and recorded (on the Albany label, also available on Spotify). Weston spoke of the experience of this orchestration process, observing “What if you had all the dialogue to a play by August Wilson. And you had the list of all the characters. But it was left to you to figure out which character said what!”
Hearing the brilliance of Price’s music, brought to my mind the fact that the slogan “Black Lives Matter” is as important in the area of classical music composition as well as elsewhere; unfortunately, the programming of most symphony orchestras would lead to the opposite conclusion.
The two songs by Margaret Bonds, a Chicago-born composer who had studied with Price, and became personally very close to her came, also made an impact.  We heard “Troubled Water,” Bonds’ arrangement of the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” in a version for chorus and piano. One of Bonds most successful of her many spiritual arrangements, she made several versions of it; this one was by Rob Miller. The Dream Unfinished Chorus drew members for four New York choirs for its polished and captivating interpretation.
Bonds’s other piece, “To A Brown Girl Dead,” set a text by the Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen; this was arranged for orchestra by Courtney Bryan, the young African American composer whose commissioned work was the musical centerpiece of the second half of the program. Soprano Marlissa Hudson conveyed deep emotion with a subtle restraint in this short, poignant setting. The subject of the poem might have been so many of the women, victims of violence, who we mourned together that night.

Terrance McKnight, a host on WQXR radio, made a sensitive and eloquent moderator. The Dream Unfinished founder Eun Lee offered some fiery remarks. Scholar Ashley Jackson shared her rich insights on Margaret Bonds. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a noted law professor and co-founder of the African American Policy Forum, drew us into a moving remembrance of the dozens of African American women—ranging from a girl of seven to a 93-year-old—who have been killed by police in recent years. She invited us to stand and call out the names of the deceased women—we had each been given an image of one, labelled with her name—to the counterpoint of evocative singing improvised by a female vocalist. I did not catch the singer’s name (she was not named in the program), but she was truly a sensitive artist, creating a blues-inspired keening for the victims. This process brought together the audience as part of a musical work, bringing the names of the victims (and their faces, as audience members held up the images) into living memory and as individuals into our feelings of concern and compassion.

By Hannah Adair Bonner (@HannahABonner

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