A Tribute to African American Heroes – Stephanie Heriger

I had been looking forward to last Saturday’s concert all week long. Special events, world premieres, inaugural concerts – this is exciting stuff. And the night did not disappoint.

Well, that’s not altogether true – I was more than a little disappointed by the lack of program notes. I’ll admit, it was refreshing to hear Richard Danielpour’s Pastime without any preconceptions to interfere with my interpretation (thank you, by the way, to Naomi Yoran, for your comments a little while back). But I would’ve liked to have known more (much more) about the work, or, at the very least, Danielpour himself. Likewise, I felt William Grant Still, the “Dean of American Negro Composers” and a key figure in American music history, deserved some sort of introduction. The same goes for Adolphus Hailstork, a living composer who could easily benefited from the recognition. Even Beethoven’s Egmont Overture might have enjoyed a more meaningful reception, had its performance been put in the proper context. Maybe this is just the stodgy musicologist in me making herself known (and, of course, things aren’t always as they seem), but I think these were missed opportunities to connect with the audience and to give the music its due.

Because the music was magnificent. And profound.

I found Hailstork’s My Lord, What a Mourning to be especially moving. I was in Atlanta not too long ago and was lucky enough to have had the chance to visit Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church where Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor before his death. Luckier still, I was there with a former organist at the church, so my tour was a personal one. Practically alone, I stood for a very long time just looking at the pulpit where he once stood, while a recording of his “I Have a Dream” speech reverberated throughout the sanctuary. I’ll never forget that. And that’s exactly where my mind went as the hummed quotation of “My Lord, What a Morning” began to float above the orchestra. I was in church. His church.lkasdjflaksdj

Danielpour’s Pastime was just as affecting. I’m a sports fan, so, emotionally, I was already hooked. By the way, it seems particularly fitting that the world premiere of this piece would come the day before two African American head coaches would be the first ever to make it to the Super Bowl and two days before our own Pittsburgh Steelers would announce the selection of the first African American head coach in franchise history. That said, the work’s meaning went far beyond professional sports. Michael S. Harper’s lyrics made this very clear. In the third movement, referring to Jackie Robinson (“Blackjack”), he writes that “they saw nothing but your teeth and eyes.” In other words, only the white parts. That line will stay with me for a very long time.

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