Charlotte musicians educate, play works by black composers
Two summers ago, during the uncertainty of the growing COVID-19 pandemic, combined with escalating social and racial tensions, Malik Johnson did what he knows best: he played the violin.
Along with about 20 other musicians, Johnson, who teaches elementary music education at Cabarrus Charter Academy in Concord, grabbed his bow and stepped into his frame on the virtual stage.
“We were all looking for an outlet,” Johnson said. “Social injustice, riots and Covid – it was all so crazy and uncertain.”
The group, now called the Charlotte Strings Collective, aims to highlight the work of black composers and encourage educators to learn about historical and contemporary pieces by these musicians as well.
The group is made up of student musicians, faculty and alumni of UNC Charlotte, Winthrop University and the Northwest School of the Arts, as well as members of the Charlotte and Union Symphonies, music teachers Charlotte-area public schools and independent musicians.
“I needed a way to focus my energy on something positive,” Johnson said. “I’m not the type of person who would want to riot, but I had to do something. I’m glad that happened.
Highlight grades of excellence
Mira Frisch is a cello teacher at UNC Charlotte and also a member of the collective.
“We started out as a group of colleagues, friends and students who wanted to support the black community in Charlotte, to affirm that black lives matter,” she said. “We have continued to highlight the excellence of these wonderful black composers in their music.”
In December, the ensemble received $18,000 in funding from the UNC Charlotte College of Arts and Architecture Research Fund, including a faculty research grant and support from the Council for the Arts and science, among other sources. ASC’s $3,000 supports “String Music by Black Composers,” which includes a public performance, video recording, and presentation at a national conference.
According to Frisch, the funding covers travel costs when the band performs at conferences, but also professional fees for each musician.
In the summer of 2020, Johnson and the rest of the band played their first virtual show. They performed “mother and child», a tender movement of William Grant Againfrom the 1943 Suite for Violin and Piano, which the composer later expanded for string orchestra.
Yet a Mississippi-born composer of more than 200 works, was the first black composer to have a symphony performed by a professional orchestra in the United States. He also became the first African-American conductor of a major American symphony orchestra, leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic. in 1936.
“We thought that recording a piece by a black composer, this particular piece would be really appropriate for this moment in time,” said violinist Kari Giles, member of the collective and assistant concertmaster of the Symphony Orchestra of Charlotte.
In October 2021, a small group, including Giles and Johnson, traveled to Rochester, NY, for the College Music Society’s annual national conference. After performing the works of Still and other underrepresented composers, the members spoke about each work and what it meant to them personally to be there.
The string group performs works by artists of color such as Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a French virtuoso violinist born in Guadeloupe, conductor and composer of the classical period; Florence Price, whose Symphony in E minor was the first composition by a black woman to be performed by a large orchestra; and Dorothee Rudd Moore.
Perform at UNC Charlotte
On February 8, the collective performed at Rowe Recital Hall on the Charlotte campus in collaboration with assistant dance teacher Tamara Williams and her company, Moving Spirits.
A contemporary work on the program, “Ode to Breonna”, composed by Timothy Adams, Jr.pays tribute to Breonna Taylor, a black medical worker who was fatally shot by Louisville, Kentucky police officers in March 2020 during a failed raid on her apartment.
Other contemporary composers the ensemble has covered include Atlanta vanessa fanning and Jessie Montgomery, a New York-based composer-in-residence for The Sphinx Organization, which supports young string players of color. The collective also performed a hip-hop duo black violinarrangements for strings.
In March, the group plans to travel to Atlanta for the American String Teachers Association National Conference.
Continue to promote diversity
The collective’s concerts are part of the group’s larger initiative to address the lack of diversity in classical music, something that has become increasingly relevant in recent years.
For example, when the Baltimore Symphony reviewed lineup numbers in 2015, composers of color and women composers made up 4.5% of orchestral repertoire in the United States, according to Rob Deemer. He is director of Institute for the Diversity of Composersan organization dedicated to the discovery, study and interpretation of music by composers from underrepresented groups.
In 2019, that number had risen to 12%, and for the current 2021-22 season, it is now at 22%. “I think this bodes well for the diversification of orchestral repertoire in the future,” Deemer said in an email.
Play music by one of their own
As assistant violin teacher at Winthrop, CSO’s Giles teaches at Madison Bush. Bush is a violinist and composer, who joined the collective for the performance “Mother and Child” in 2020.
“As a teacher, you want your students to see themselves, in music and on stage,” Giles said. “I’ve always loved playing, but it’s really special for me to be able to play with my students.”
At future concerts, the collective will perform Bush’s composition, “Columns,” a piece that Bush described as “a spinning column of lights that gradually spins faster and faster before fading away.”
“It’s kind of scary,” Bush said. “It reminds me of how difficult it is to get this type of music played, especially if you’re a composer from a certain demographic.
“It can be intimidating. But there is also a level of respect that we all have. I love that he recognizes how difficult it is to be in that position, as a songwriter, as a black person, person of color, woman.
Bush said how much she enjoys working with the string ensemble.
“They’re very, very talented adults and individuals, which is sometimes a little surreal, because I’ve only played with my peers,” she said. “I never felt like an outsider in this group, which is really important.”
Giles welcomes diversity, both in the group and for the selections used.
“There are so many voices that have created and continue to create wonderful music,” Giles said. “Our experience as audience members and players only grows the more voices we are exposed to.”
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This story was originally published February 24, 2022 06:00.