Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Sergio A. Mims: A Black Harpist Makes Classical Music for the Moment; Charles Overton is a rising star on the Boston music scene

Charles Overton

By Jed Gottlieb

November 9, 2020


Because a Black male harpist is exceedingly rare

  • Charles Overton is a rising star on the Boston music scene thanks in part to his new, original composition in response to the killing of George Floyd.
  • The versatile 26-year-old wants to be both the Yo-Yo Ma and Herbie Hancock of the harp.

Harpist Charles Overton had started to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic curtailing his work when Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd. With the U.S. hit by the relentless scourges of COVID-19 and violence against African Americans, Overton felt distant from the bright, complex music he produced with his harp. 

“I just didn’t have it in myself to be making music at that time,” he says. “I thought, ‘What does the world need from me right now in terms of my music and my art?’ I didn’t think it needed anything.”

Then, an old friend, Boston Symphony Orchestra associate principal horn Richard Sebring, reached out to Overton with a scrap of music Sebring had composed following Floyd’s death. The heartfelt, simple melody helped bring Overton, who had studied with Sebring at Berklee College of Music, back to his instrument. The two began a collaboration that blossomed into a piece Overton titled “Listen, to the Cry of Your Fellow Man.” In October, the contemplative harp and horn duet became part of the Boston Symphony’s “Encore BSO Recitals,” a weekly online series featuring new performances.

“It essentially turned into a conversation between us,” Sebring says. “It brings tears to my eyes to hear [Overton] play. It’s so exquisite. It’s like a fine piece of jewelry with such detail. He has a beautiful touch and warm heart in his playing.” 

The forceful but nuanced rise and fall of “Listen” shows off the skills of a 26-year-old already in complete control of his craft. Overton’s journey began in fifth grade in Richmond, Virginia, when his music teacher advised him to switch from the violin to the harp. “I had had a trial lesson and I was just floored because you have to try very hard to make the harp sound bad,” Overton says. “[At this point] I was really, really bad at the violin and, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard really, really bad violin playing, but it’s something that’s just so terrible.” 

The new instrument was a springboard to the American Youth Harp Ensemble, undergraduate studies at Berklee and recent performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Overton stands out onstage. Only 1.8 percent of musicians in American orchestras are Black, and only 6 percent of harpists are men. Plus, he’s a harpist who not only regularly performs classical masterpieces but also excels in jazz, from gentle to almost avant garde.  

As a Black man, Overton has spent time thinking about how he fits into the world of classical music, but, he says, it hasn’t dominated his thoughts. “That’s a testament to the kind of privileged upbringing I had thanks to the parents in my life, the mentors in my life,” he says, referring to his pharmaceutical sales rep mom and his dad, who was general manager of an exchange at Marine Corps Base Quantico. “I think it was once I got to college and I was on my own that I really started to notice how maybe my race factored into what I was doing.”

Source: Jonas Tarm

During Overton’s sophomore year at Berklee, he started playing with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, and for the first time he didn’t feel confident in a classical music setting. “I couldn’t help but think about the way I was being perceived,” he says. “I don’t think I had reason to feel racism from the people around me, but I was just very conscious that I was a Black male harpist at Berklee playing in this fantastic ensemble.” 

Overton wondered if people doubted his abilities because of his race, gender or college — Berklee, a legendary institution that has educated icons from Quincy Jones to Branford Marsalis to St. Vincent, doesn’t have a formidable classical music reputation. But Overton never wanted to play solely classical; he spent nearly as much time during his formative years with jazz and various folk traditions. At Berklee, while still studying classical music, Overton became the first harpist to be accepted to the college’s prestigious Global Jazz Institute. In 2017, a year after he graduated, Overton released his debut LP, Convergence, with his jazz quartet, the Charles Overton Group. Between gigs playing post-bop, he managed to catch the ears of both BSO conductor Andris Nelsons and Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart.

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