Sunday, February 7, 2021 Composer Anthony Davis Imagines His Freedom

Anthony Davis

San Francisco Classical Voice

February 6, 2021

It’s mere coincidence that composer Anthony Davis received word of winning the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Music less than a month before protests over the killing of Breonna Taylor and then the shocking video of the murder of George Floyd. It is, however, no coincidence that the opera he won the prize for, The Central Park Five, was about bias in American law enforcement, and not just at the police level.

Davis has always been political, but his work in opera is deeply connected to a sense of epic stories, tragic stories with a sense of inevitability to them. He won the Pulitzer precisely because he digs much deeper than just a political take, notwithstanding the villain of the piece, a certain real-estate developer with a talent for attracting media attention. The committee noted that the opera “transforms a notorious example of contemporary injustice into something empathetic and hopeful.”

Despite his breadth of musical understanding and his philosophical soul, Davis’s music is powerfully present, pushing you to feel emotions rather than to sit back and contemplate the bigger picture. His compositions have big melodies and dramatic arcs immediately identifiable to listeners of Beethoven or Duke Ellington or Alban Berg.

Awards don’t help us quantify these qualities, but for a composer who burst onto the operatic scene so spectacularly with X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X at the New York City Opera in 1986, it’s an acknowledgement of his eminence in a world, classical music, that has usually struggled to deal honestly with Black musicians and Black experience.

Anthony Davis
(Credit: Nelvin Cepeda)

Are things starting to change? Yuval Sharon has committed Michigan Opera Theater to a new production of a slightly revised and condensed X in 2022. New York City Opera has slated The Central Park Five for a 2021–2022 production. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has, this past November, successfully presented his clarinet concerto You Have the Right to Remain Silent (2007), with Anthony McGill as soloist and Louis Langree on the podium.

And as Davis turns 70 this year, he continues composing. He and his cousin, poet and historian Thulani Davis, have started work on an opera, Greenwood, 1921, about the Tulsa race riots. “Hopefully it will be a commission,” he says. “I think that will happen. But you know it doesn’t make any sense for me to sit around and not do anything. So in the dry periods I was working on Lear on the Second Floor [2013] and Lilith [2009] and other operas that I did on my own. I love composing, so why should I deprive myself? Just because I’m not getting a paycheck at the right time? You have to do it to keep the work going.”

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