Special NHSO concert program honors the lessons of the Amistad
(New Haven Register (New Haven, CT) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 22--NEW HAVEN -- William Boughton was walking around New Haven familiarizing himself with the city as the newly named 10th music director of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra in 2007, when he came across the Amistad monument near the Green.
It was his first exposure to the Amistad story of the Sierra Leone slaves whose case for freedom was heard in New Haven, but it touched him to the point that he knew he had to include some remembrance of its story in the programs he was beginning to create for the nation's fourth oldest symphony.
The results of that moment become reality Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Woolsey Hall when Boughton leads the symphony, with guest artist French violin virtuoso Philippe Graffin and the Amistad Academy String Ensemble in a concert called Amistad Remembrance, an homage both to the event and Black History Month.
"I went to the (Peabody) museum and researched more about the story," he says, research that also included traveling to Charleston's Spoleto Festival production of the opera "Amistad," which made Boughton more determined that his orchestra should do its part in an Amistad remembrance.
"It was the old thing, 'lest we forget' the struggle these people went through. ... And I thought it would be great to invite children into this remembrance. What better place to go than the Amistad Academy," says Boughton.
This program just has so many compelling elements, from Graffin's debut with NHSO playing a work whose original sheets went down with the Titanic, to a piece by America's king of jazz that might not be so familiar to a symphony audience.
What that audience will hear Thursday is a program that dovetails several of Boughton's rules to live by -- involve community, especially in teaching children about music, and educate both audiences and the orchestra by exposing them to new works -- in this case, primarily by black composers such as Duke Ellington and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
In addition to the 22-piece Amistad ensemble, which will perform Marsha Chusmir Shapiro's continental melange piece "African Accents," WTNH-8 anchor Keith Kountz will be the narrator for the majestic "New Morning for the World -- Daybreak of Freedom," by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Joseph Schwantner.
Boughton calls Schwantner "an extraordinarily powerful composer who speaks directly to the heart" with this poignant work, which includes excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech interspersed throughout.
The work opens dramatically with a percussion and brass charge that Boughton says "makes you feel that a new dawn has arrived, but it's arrived in such a powerful, almost cataclysmic way that you're thrown out of your seat, your whole body is awakened, and he takes you on this incredible journey. It ends in this very peaceful way." Originally, the program was to include a new commissioned work by another Pulitzer winner, George Walker, but the time constraint to fulfill the assignment was too much for the 87-year-old composer.
"It was a dream of mine," says Boughton, but he holds hope that "one day we will be able to do it, but it's very difficult for composers to be pressured." The program is rich in African-American heritage: Duke Ellington's "Suite from The River," an undulating piece that replicates the coursing of a river, is "very exciting and very unusual for the orchestra," says Boughton, "because it includes so many different elements of African-American music." Graffin will be featured in Coleridge-Taylor's Violin Concerto in G Minor, a piece with a stretch of a local connection, as it was originally written for violinist Mort Powell, a favorite of the Stoeckels of Yale Norfolk Chamber Music Festival fame.
Coleridge-Taylor, a black Brit whose mother was a white woman from Sierra Leone, got to know the Stoeckels when his "Hiawatha" premiered at Harvard, and they encouraged him to write a concerto based on negro spirituals, though neither liked his attempt, according to Boughton.
The Amistad Academy String Ensemble has been rehearsing in workshops with Boughton since November, and Boughton has nothing but praise for them and their school.
"I can't speak highly enough about Amistad Academy as an institution; the dedication and passion of the teachers is palpable as soon as you walk into the building," he says.
He calls this chance for them to play with the NHSO something they'll remember for the rest of their lives, but he seems as excited as he says they are.
"I think the last couple of weeks, they've been really buzzed up," he says of his young ensemble. "You can tell they're getting really excited with the concert coming close, and sitting on stage with professional musicians, I know that as soon as they start playing with them, their games will be lifted so much ... whether it's the catalyst to become professional musicians doesn't really matter. What matters is the occasion, the performance. On that day, it's very, very important.
"We tend to live our lives so much in the future that we forget about the here and now. Just seeing the wonderful smiles on their faces as they get to know these pieces ... it's what education is all about." To see more of New Haven Register, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.nhregister.com.
Copyright (c) 2009, New Haven Register, Conn.
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