28 April 2022
In the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, the Minnesota Orchestra’s musicians and staff brainstormed how to make change.
One answer, it turns out, was to make music.
This week, the orchestra announced the commission of a major composition for orchestra and choir by two Black artists: Carlos Simon, one of the country’s most in-demand composers, and librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph.
The piece — titled “brea(d)th” — honors not only Floyd but the work toward equity and healing that the Washington, D.C.-based duo have witnessed on the ground in Minneapolis.
“We’re very clear that we don’t want to make a requiem,” Joseph said via Zoom. “This is not about the biography of one person, and it’s not a retelling of the events of May 2020 …
“This is as much Daunte Wright’s story or Philando Castile’s story as it George Floyd’s story.”
Since Floyd’s death, major orchestras across the country have been commissioning and programming more pieces by Black composers, a shift that musicians of color have long been calling for.
“I’m more encouraged than ever before,” said Afa S. Dworkin, president and artistic director of the Sphynx Organization, which has pushed for diversity in the arts for 25 years.
But she wants to make sure that these changes last beyond a season or two, beyond when they’re “en vogue,” so that they “become part of our DNA.”
Commissions are essential to that long-term work, Dworkin said. “Composers and librettists and artists are there not just to express themselves but also to document, narrate and chronicle our history of today.”
The Minnesota Orchestra will premiere the piece in May 2023, but its leaders hope it will be performed often and beyond Orchestra Hall, said Beth Kellar-Long, vice president of orchestra administration.
“While George Floyd’s murder happened here and had a devastating and specific effect on the Twin Cities,” she said, “it also radiated out and had an effect on the United States and the world.”
Plugging into community
The three-part, 30-minute work for orchestra, choir and soloists is taking shape over several visits to Minneapolis.
That’s unusual for Simon. “Typically,” he said, “I get a commission and the orchestra will say: ‘Write the piece. We’ll see you at the premiere.’ “
While in Minneapolis earlier this month, he and Joseph sat in on a rehearsal and met with a committee.
But the pair also spent time in churches and coffee shops, meeting with community. They were on their way to George Floyd Square when news broke that the police officer who fatally shot 22-year-old Amir Locke — in an apartment complex across the street from Orchestra Hall — would not be charged.
“So that was also a part of the landscape of our visit,” Joseph said, shaking his head.
Those events added to the questions they were already weighing, Simon said. “Who is this piece for? Is it for the patrons of the Minnesota Orchestra or is it for the community?”
As one answer, Simon and Joseph are crafting a version of the piece that can performed by a smaller ensemble at, say, George Floyd Square.
The commission is part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s broader attempt to diversify its repertoire, evident in this week’s announcement of its coming season, which opens with Wynton Marsalis’ “Swing Symphony” and includes Black composer Jessie Montgomery’s first piano concerto, “Rounds.”
More quietly, the orchestra has been recording music by composers who were sidelined and overlooked because of race and gender. It’s part of a nationwide effort to make orchestras better aware of that music — and nudge them to program it.
One example: Margaret Bonds’ “Montgomery Variations,” written in tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964. It has rarely been performed and never been professionally recorded.
“It’s not always easy to find good recordings of quality works,” Dworkin noted. “It needs to be done, and it needs to be done well.
“And that’s how we’ll shift our canon.”
An opportunity for change
Simon has been busy. So have his friends.
“I talk with a lot of my composer friends who are Black, and they’re booked out,” Simon said. “It’s a great thing, and I think some really amazing work will come out of this that will hopefully have life …
“That is the hope — that we aren’t just playing dead white Germans as part of classical music subscriptions across the country, that we can include composers of color into the repertoire.”
In January, the Washington Post’s classical music critic named Simon one of 22 composers to watch in 2022, calling him an artist “whose music scope of late lands like a grand panorama of American life.” He’s the Kennedy Center’s composer-in-residence and a 2021 winner of the Sphinx Medal of Excellence.
In October, the orchestra is playing another of his works, the ominous but beautiful “An Elegy: A Cry From the Grave.”
As the Kennedy Center’s vice president and artistic director of social impact, Joseph himself commissions new work. The center’s “The Cartography Project” has enlisted dozens of artists of color representing grieving, healing cities, including Minneapolis.
Minnesota-raised composer Liz Gre and author Junauda Petrus-Nasah’s “A Progeny of Perpetual Independence” premiered in March. One critic called it a “knockout.”
Together, Simon and Joseph have crafted several works, including a short opera, with social justice themes.
After Floyd’s death and the unrest that followed, Simon got a call from the Minnesota Orchestra, which was “grappling with how to respond to these tragedies through music and how to use your artistic voice to join the call for change,” as president and CEO Michelle Miller Burns later put it.
He and Joseph were excited — but nervous.
Some of that was “aesthetic nervousness,” Joseph said, given the tradition of classical music’s tension with this contemporary political movement. They were also thinking about how “we, as folks who are not native to the Twin Cities, could honor the legacy of arts and arts activism that’s present there,” he said.
Simon’s parents are pastors, he noted, and the composer views his artistic work in a similar light — as a service.
“We don’t want to write a piece in a vacuum that doesn’t do anyone any good,” Simon said. “This piece, and music in general, is in service to the community.”