The Boston Conservatory Orchestra pays tribute to black composers, with Adolphus Hailstork in the foreground

“Which was controversial because, as a career path, I never thought I had to, you know, feed me,” he continued. “I didn’t think practically. I just wanted to be a composer.

He became just that, and at a time when prominent black composers were often in short supply. Hailstork’s career began to take off around the time of the Martin Luther King Jr. vacation debate in the 1980s, which sparked increased interest in the music of African-American composers.

Since then, “I’ve been played somewhere every year,” said Hailstork, who is based in Virginia. “And then it started to pick up, maybe somewhere every six months, or three months. And now it’s every two months and lately every month.

Indeed, in Hailstork’s ninth decade, his music seems to be reaching ever wider audiences. Last month, the National Philharmonic Orchestra premiered “A Knee on the Neck,” a full-scale response to the murder of George Floyd for soloists, choir and orchestra. Perhaps most notably, a group arrangement of “Fanfare on Amazing Grace” was played at the inauguration of President Joe Biden, only the second musical performance by a contemporary African-American composer at a presidential inauguration.

This piece, in its full orchestral version, is on the program of the Boston Conservatory Orchestra at Symphony Hall on Saturday to celebrate Hailstork’s 81st birthday. He will also present his cantata “Crispus Attucks” and the world premiere of “Answering the Call”, a new orchestral piece about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, alongside works by Bill Banfield, professor emeritus of African studies at Berklee College. of Music. , and Boston Conservatory to Berklee alumnus Stefan Thompson.

Conductor Thomas Wilkins, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s artistic advisor for education and community engagement, has known Hailstork for more than 30 years. “I often refer to him (to his embarrassment) as the dean of African-American composers,” Wilkins wrote in an email. “Adolphus is not only creative and intelligent, he is also an excellent craftsman.”

Hailstork’s early musical studies owed much to Anglican leanings at the Episcopal Cathedral of All Saints, and the composition course at Howard was, with the exception of the study of spirituals, strictly in the European tradition. Gospel music was banned and “it’s best not to be caught playing it in practice rooms,” he said.

It wasn’t until he was a student at Michigan State University, as the civil rights protests of the late 1960s raged around him, that what he calls “the rising element of black consciousness “began to work its way into his music.

The question of what role each of these facets played in shaping his compositional voice intrigued him for a long time, until he could find terms that speak to the diversity of his influences. “Cultural hybridity” was one.

“My writing is strictly Euro-American at times – you won’t hear any hint of anything coming out of the black experience,” he said. In other works, materials such as blues or spirituals come to the fore. “And sometimes in the same room, I will juxtapose the two, and sometimes I will mix the two. I work on both sides of the street. And it’s my voice. And it baffles everyone when they say, what’s your style, and I’m just saying, my style is diverse.

One thing Hailstork was always sure was that the currents of modernism that were in vogue when he was in graduate school—at Manhattan School of Music and then at Michigan State—were not for him. His works fall within the broad tradition of tonal music, and many have a tonal and lyrical warmth reminiscent of the American composers he trained with, David Diamond in particular. Serialism has never been of serious interest.

“I had to work my way through the rows of tones,” he said. “I gave back to Caesar what was to be paid back to Caesar when I was taking lessons. But when I paid attention to what I liked and what I wanted to do, I had no problem being tonal.

His list of works in progress includes two piano concertos, his fifth symphony, a setting of part of John F. Kennedy’s last speech, a work for organ and the orchestration of a set of songs written there. has many years. When asked if he thinks his music has received the praise it deserves, he said that for him, the work itself is the most important reward.

“It’s been pretty good,” he said. “You could want more, but why bother wanting it? You’re wasting your time and energy doing this. I count my blessings and thank the conductors and performers who invested their time and energy to learn what I wrote. I got enough recognition to be satisfied. I can’t complain.

“You have to like writing,” he says. “The first thing is to love the process. If you are going to do the process to get noticed, you’re in the wrong business. You have to love doing it.

Boston Conservatory Orchestra

At: Symphony Hall, Saturday, 2 p.m. Tickets: $17. 888-266-1200,

David Weininger can be contacted at Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.

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