Sunday, July 12, 2020 Philadelphia string players are planning two candlelight vigils for violinist Elijah McClain [George Walker's "Lyric for Strings" to be performed]


Composer George Walker in Verizon Hall, April 29, 2018, where his "Lyric for Strings" was performed. 

by Peter Dobrin, Posted: July 12, 2020

It happened almost a year ago in Aurora, Colo. But like an echo growing paradoxically louder over time, the story of Elijah McClain and his horrific death has spread across the country.

Next week it lands in Philadelphia. A group of local string players is planning two candlelight vigils in his memory — one Wednesday at Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia, and another July 19 on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The aim is to “lift up voices of Black artists and musicians, and to hold the space for victims of systemic racism and police brutality,” says instrumentalist Veronica Jurkiewicz, one of the organizers, who will play viola at the vigils.

“Music has always found a way to bring peace and bring a calm to people when there is so much tragedy in their lives,” says Alberta Douglas, a Philadelphia violinist who is another one of the planners. “It has a way of conveying emotion that words can’t always do.”

McClain, a Black 23-year-old massage therapist, was walking home from a corner store last August when he was approached by three white Aurora police officers after a 911 call reporting someone who “looked sketchy.”

Police said McClain was “uncooperative,” according to a district attorney report. They struggled to handcuff him. A police body camera reveals McClain saying: “I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking. Leave me alone.”

Police placed him in a carotid hold, and paramedics injected him with the sedative ketamine. He suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and died three days later, according to news reports.

After an initial investigation, no charges in his death were filed.

David Zalubowski / AP
FILE - In this June 27, 2020, file photo, demonstrators carry a giant placard during a rally and march over the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain outside the police department in Aurora, Colo. 

McClain’s fate has especially drawn the attention of musicians, who see him as one of their own. He was also a violinist, and a photograph of him playing music for stray cats has been widely circulated.

The music chosen for the candlelight vigils has significance. Lyric for Strings is by George Walker, whose 1996 Pulitzer Prize for music was the first to be awarded to a Black composer. The work was premiered in 1946 on a radio concert by the orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music, just after Walker graduated from the Philadelphia school. It was originally titled Lament.

“He wrote it after someone in his life [his grandmother] passed away,” says Douglas. “In the piece, you can hear it goes in and out of happiness as if to remember all the sweet memories of the person and the sadness and longing for the person who you can no longer walk beside. It seems to me it has the gentleness of Elijah’s soul and the spirit and sweetness of his smile. But also the sadness of this tragedy.”

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