Monday, November 28, 2016

Memphis-based PRIZM Ensemble innovates with orchestra that mirrors city's diversity [Lecolion Washington, Founder, Has Recorded African-American Works]

PRIZM Ensemble

Legacy: Works for Bassoon by African-American Composers
Lecolion Washington

NOVEMBER 28, 2016

(MEMPHIS, TN) – What if an orchestra looked like its home city? That’s the (unfortunately) novel concept behind PRIZM Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble whose membership mirrors the demographic diversity of Memphis, launched this month by the nonprofit PRIZM Ensemble.
The launch of PRIZM Chamber Orchestra is a historic moment for the ensemble and for the city. Though there is a growing conversation around diversity in classical music, PRIZM is excited to be among that small group who demonstrate what can happen when an organization is wholly dedicated to this ideal and holds themselves accountable for their success in achieving it. The Chamber Orchestra made its debut in the Opera Memphis production of The Marriage Of Figaro, which also featured an intentionally diverse cast.
PRIZM founder Lecolion Washington, throughout his career committed to equity and inclusion in the arts, says the idea for PRIZM Chamber Orchestra was percolating within PRIZM for some time.
“Often people think, if we’re more diverse then we have to lower our standard,” Washington says. “What I wanted to show is that you can have both. You can have an extremely high-level performance and an extremely diverse group of people. And so my question is, if you can have both, why would you ever settle for less than that?”
The PRIZM Chamber Orchestra’s 31 members represent 16 cities and 11 states. While some of the musicians are based in Memphis, many flew in for the production and to make history with this innovative new group.
“I could feel and hear that these musicians were bringing something extra to this project,” Washington says. “They were saying something to the community, to the country, really. Many of them aren’t from this city, they don’t know Memphis, but they know what it’s like to be a classical musician and a person of color, just existing in this world. They knew they were playing for something that was bigger than this performance, bigger than any individual there.”
“You can have an extremely high-level performance and an extremely diverse group of people. And so my question is, if you can have both, why would you ever settle for less than that?”
While the musicians were in Memphis, they also took part in PRIZM’s in-school programming, visiting two schools where they played for and with young musicians. It’s another key component of PRIZM’s efforts to create access to a diverse classical music scene. “Representation is very important to a young person”, Washington said. “We as parents, educators, and leaders have an obligation to create opportunities for young people to see adults who look like them doing amazing things.”

With these inaugural performances complete – and a rousing success with two sold-out houses – the next step for PRIZM Ensemble’s leadership is to work to incorporate the PRIZM Chamber Orchestra into the 2017 PRIZM Music Camp and International Chamber Music Festival. The Ensemble will seek financial support over the coming months to ensure that the members of the orchestra can come back to Memphis to work even more closely with Memphis youth while performing for Memphis audiences.
“I’m trying to create a world where this isn’t a novelty,” Washington says. “The thought should be: ‘We try to identify the best musicians and we try to make sure the work we do mirrors and represents the community in which we live.’ My dream for PRIZM Chamber Orchestra is that we continue doing it, it expands and spreads nationwide, and then it becomes something that’s not necessary anymore. It’s not something on the fringe, it’s something at the center of the work. It’s part of the culture.”
And indeed, Washington’s assessment of the impact of PRIZM Chamber Orchestra on its members was accurate. The feeling in the pit throughout the weekend’s performances was palpable.
“Every voice deserves to be heard, every young person deserves to experience what it means to make art,” says violinist Kyra Sims. “But if they don't see themselves reflected in that art, they may not realize that that door is open to them. This is why I create. This is why I play. I’m so grateful to PRIZM for giving me a chance to bring my art back to the city where I grew up.”
Violinist Hannah Monk agreed. “I teach a diverse group of kids, and they are the embodiment of everything that makes our city special,” she says. “They are unique, creative, intelligent, and hilarious and many of them love their instrument and love classical music. I do not want any of my students to ever think that classical music is not for them. I want each of them to be able to look at the faces of a diverse orchestra and say, ‘This is what an orchestra looks like. An orchestra looks like me.’”

Formed in 2004, The PRIZM Ensemble consists of classically trained Memphis musicians who specialize in chamber music and are dedicated to developing and promoting local talent in the Memphis area through educational and performance opportunities. PRIZM serves as the ensemble-in-residence at Shady Grove Presbyterian Church in East Memphis and performs several interactive chamber concerts at various locations throughout the year. Additionally, the group puts on the annual PRIZM Camp & International Chamber Music Festival each summer. For more about The PRIZM Ensemble, call 901-596-9105 or visit

Comments by email:

1) Bill,  Thanks for sharing this around! Nice to hear from you again! Lecolion Washington

2) Bill – thank you so much! We’ll share this via our socials this week. Cheers, Elizabeth Cawein

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