Music is a universal language. Through music, we can connect and learn about the diverse perspectives of other cultures and lived experiences. The Houston Symphony is proud to highlight the repertoire of composers from diverse and historically underrepresented backgrounds. In 2020, we committed to include musical selections composed by women and people of color on all programs. During the 2021–22 Season, we featured works from 21 Black composers, eight Hispanic composers, two Korean composers, one Japanese composer, and one Chinese composer—and of those, 17 were female. For the 2022–23 Season, we have continued our commitment to showcasing diverse voices in music in both our Classical and Bank of America POPS series. In honor of Black History Month, we’re highlighting the Black composers, conductors, and guest artists who brought their unique talent and perspectives to the Houston Symphony for the 2022–23 Season!
Our Celebrating Black Composers concert in October 2022—a program designed for our PNC Family Concert Series—featured classical and contemporary works from Black composers from around the world. Among the composers honored was 18th century French composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. One of the first known classical composers of African descent to receive critical acclaim, Saint-Georges published several symphonies, concertos, sonatas, operas, and string quartets over his lifetime and was the conductor of Concert des Amateurs, a prominent orchestra in Paris.
The concert also featured works from two 20th century classical composers, Florence Price and William Grant Still. Price and Still were two classical composers who made history during their lifetimes—Price was the first Black woman to have her symphony performed by a major American orchestra when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra debuted it in 1933, and Still was the first Black man to conduct a major American orchestra when he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl in 1936.
Classical music wasn’t the only genre on display at the Celebrating Black Composers program. The orchestra also played the ragtime classic, The Entertainer, by composer and pianist Scott Joplin, famously nicknamed “the King of Ragtime.” With its syncopated, or “ragged” rhythm, ragtime came from the African American communities of the South and Midwest and set the stage for the development of jazz. The orchestra also performed Duke Ellington’s Suite from The River, a ballet that premiered with the Alvin Alley Dance Company in 1971. In this Suite, Ellington, better known for being one of the most important pioneers of jazz and the big band sound, merged the properties associated with jazz with classical music on a symphonic scale.
Also featured in the concert, Community-Embedded Musician Rainel Joubert—who is Afro-Cuban and of Haitian descent—performed a violin solo to “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix, an American guitarist, singer, and songwriter, was known as one of the most gifted instrumentalists in the history of rock and roll. The program was led by guest conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, a Canadian Black conductor who is famous for conducting and creating shows to target diverse groups that are not traditionally associated with the orchestral world.
This season’s programs also featured contemporary works from living Black composers and the talents of fabulous Black guest artists and conductors. Early on in our Classical Season, we featured the works of two composers who draw on the African American experience to inform their music. Zoom! for Strings and Percussion by composer Shawn Okpebholo was a response to the global pandemic and evokes his optimism about the world’s return to normalcy. Okpebholo describes his work as not “music for music’s sake…;”, but rather, it is inspired by or in response to an experience or event—he regularly draws from his African and African American heritage, the classical canon, and his faith. In September, the orchestra also performed a piece by Adolphus Hailstork entitled Still Holding On, the first movement of his fourth symphony SURVIVE. The premiere of the work was at a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert saluting William Grant Still. In order to pay tribute, Still Holding On includes references to Still’s famous symphony Afro-American and features motifs from the African American spiritual Hold On. Spirituals are rooted in the Black oral tradition of storytelling and merged biblical stories with the hardships of slavery. The musical motifs in spirituals and gospel music, including repetition and “call and response” interactions, set the groundwork for genres such as rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and soul music. Speaking of soul music—last October, the Houston Symphony performed the world premiere of She’s Got Soul with Broadway star Capathia Jenkins. Jenkins created She’s Got Soul to pay tribute to the soul music superstars she grew up listening to. The program consisted of classic soul songs from recording artists such as Whitney Houston, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sade, Toni Braxton, and many more.
Still to come this season, the orchestra will perform works from talented Black composers such as Carlos Simon and see appearances from superstar guest artists like virtuoso violinist Tai Murray. Simon’s Fate Now Conquers will be a part of our Brahms Piano Concerto 1 and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 program March 10–12, a program that will be conducted by Jonathon Heyward. Jonathon is a rising star in the orchestral world—at just 29 years old, he made history when he became the first person of color to be appointed the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Currently in his second year as a chief conductor of the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie as well, Jonathon’s talent and passion for music are inspiring, and we look forward to welcoming him to Houston as a guest conductor.
The Houston Symphony is proud to offer programming featuring these Black composers and guest artists and we continue our commitment to highlight works that reflect the diversity of the modern city and world we live in. —Lauren Buchanan
This article was originally published in the February 2023 issue of the InTune Magazine.