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Classical Music Steps In for BlackLivesMatter - Classical Notes Add to Voices of Protest

On July 13, 2015, Sandra Bland died while in police custody in Texas. On July 13, 2016, the one-year anniversary of her tragic death, The Dream Unfinished held a concert to commemorate her and the large number of Black women impacted by police killings. Whether Black women and girls are killed by police directly; their loved ones are killed by police; or police refuse to intervene or respond - Black women, girls, and femmes are affected by police brutality and killings

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Eun Lee, center, of The Dream Unfinished, has organized an orchestral concert at Cooper Union to benefit the Black Lives Matter movement., Credit via The Dream Unfinished // New York Times
 
By William Robin
 
July 10, 2016
 
 
After last week's shootings, an orchestral concert to benefit the Black Lives Matter movement, scheduled for Wednesday night at Cooper Union, has become tragically timely.
 
"The reasons why we're having this concert are not good ones," said the clarinetist and music teacher Eun Lee, who has been organizing the "Sing Her Name" event for the past year. "But I am looking forward to a communion of people."
 
"We need that right now," she added, "rather than us all isolated, looking at our phone screens or computer screens and feeling these feelings all by ourselves."
 
"Sing Her Name" is the second benefit concert that Ms. Lee has organized as part of the Dream Unfinished project. In December 2014, as activists gathered across the country to protest the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City, both at the hands of police officers, Ms. Lee wondered how she could contribute. "I was sitting on the question, `Is there anything we can do as classical musicians?'" she recalled.
 
After a series of Google searches along the lines of "classical music black lives matter," it became clear to her that no such project existed. "It just hit me," Ms. Lee said, "that, as much as we were seeing a response from rap musicians and folk musicians and now more and more pop musicians, there was no such response from the classical music community."
 
So Ms. Lee responded. She rounded up an orchestra's worth of performers to donate their time for rehearsals; created a series of eye-catching videos to promote the project; and partnered with the Center for Constitutional Rights, Justice League NYC and the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice. Three hundred concertgoers attended "The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights" in Lower Manhattan on July 17, 2015, the first anniversary of Mr. Garner's death. Activists, including Mr. Garner's daughter Erica, gave speeches, and the orchestra played music by Leonard Bernstein and William Grant Still.
 
It is not surprising that Ms. Lee's initial internet searches yielded no results. While classical music institutions have lately addressed issues of diversity - the theme of the League of American Orchestras' annual conference last month was "The Richness of Difference" - they still tend to avoid confronting contemporary racial tensions.
 
When demonstrators interrupted a 2014 St. Louis Symphony concert to sing "Requiem for Mike Brown," or when, in 2015, Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, spoke of the necessity of the protests that shook her city after the death of Freddie Gray, they were rare and controversial moments in a largely apolitical industry. Classical music tends to frame questions of race in terms of professional and audience demographics, distant from the discussions of police brutality that concern Black Lives Matter.
 
"The leadership and the personnel rosters of a lot of these major orchestras and institutions are so white. I think some of it is also just their own personal discomfort," Ms. Lee said, adding, "There's a fear of having something to lose, alienating donors or sponsors who are a little more conservative."
 
But she argued that her project was essentially uncontroversial: "The Dream Unfinished is not really politically motivated, because I feel strongly that the issue of systemic racism and police brutality is something that should be bipartisan."
 
The theme of this year's benefit, "Sing Her Name," alludes to #SayHerName, an activist movement that raises awareness of the effects of police violence on black women.
 
"Everyone knows the name Sandra Bland" - who died in police custody in Texas in July 2015 - "but most people don't know that there are five other black women who were killed that same month," Ms. Lee said. Benefit proceeds will go to the Center for Constitutional Rights, African American Policy Forum and Black Women's Blueprint. The orchestra will perform music by African-American and female composers, including Florence Price, Margaret Bonds and Ethel Smyth.
 
The concert will also feature the premiere of Courtney Bryan's "Yet Unheard," which sets a new text by the poet Sharan Strange memorializing Ms. Bland. "What I'm bringing to it is the emotional side," Ms. Bryan said in a recent interview. "Being able to mourn what happened, but also celebrate her spirit."
 
A versatile pianist and composer, Ms. Bryan engages with gospel and jazz traditions in her music, and increasingly with politics. Her 2015 orchestral work "Sanctum" incorporates the recorded voices of Marlene Pinnock - who was beaten by a California Highway Patrol officer in 2014 - and protesters in Ferguson.
 
 
 
Listen here.
 
 
"As I was working on the piece, Mike Brown was killed, and I was following what was happening in Ferguson," she said. "All these different things started becoming part of it, and at some point I had to shut off everything, because it wasn't like the events were slowing down."
 
Written for chorus, orchestra and the vocalist Helga Davis, "Yet Unheard" also is a call for action. Early in the piece, the choir sings "Break through fear, push back hatred's stone/ It's an honor to protest for her." In an interview, Ms. Davis described the need for artists to participate in social movements. "We're all saying: `What can we do? I don't do anything. I'm not a politician, I don't have a lot of money, I'm not connected,'" she said. "We keep talking about all the things we're not, instead of saying, `But I play piano, or I sing, or I dance.'"
 
At a workshop rehearsal in May, Ms. Bryan and Ms. Davis sat together at a piano and read through the latest version of the score. At one point, Ms. Davis suggested that a passage in which she sings "Didn't he kill me that day?" be moved an octave lower.
 
"It's really the last of my breath," she said, noting that the phrase now sat at the bottom of her vocal range. Over a wash of harmony and intoned in Ms. Davis's powerful voice, the line became a haunting accusation. When she repeated the phrase later in the rehearsal, Ms. Davis paused and said, "It asks the question in the way it needs to be asked."
 
[A version of this article appears in print on July 12, 2016, on page C3 of the New York edition with the headline: Classical Notes Add to Voices of Protest.]
 
 
 
 
 
 
The performance, set to take place on the year anniversary of Sandra Bland's death, is as important now as ever.
 
By Priscilla Frank, Arts Writer, The Huffington Post
 
July 12, 2016
 
 

 
 
Photo credit: Associated Press // Huffington Post
 
July 13, 2016, will mark one year since the death of Sandra Bland. Three days after she was pulled over for forgetting a turn signal, and subsequently arrested after a confrontation ensued, Bland was found hanged in a Texas county jail cell. Those who knew Bland vehemently denied she would have taken her own life, calling the prospect “unfathomable.” The same month of Bland’s death, four more black women died behind bars ― Kindra Chapman, Raynette Turner, Joyce Curnell and Ralkina Jones. 

On the first anniversary of Bland’s death, a classical music tribute called “Sing Her Name” will commemorate black women impacted by racial injustice, as well as the Black Lives Matter organizers and activists working to expose and end systematic racial oppression. The concert, organized by clarinetist and music teacher Eun Lee and presented by “The Dream Unfinished: An Activist Orchestra,” features a program of music by all-female composers like Florence Price, Margaret Bonds and Ethel Smyth.

The concert is under the artistic direction of James Blachly and Grammy-winning conductor John McLaughlin Williams, and features soloists including baritone Dashon Burton, vocalist Helga Davis, soprano Marlissa Hudson, and pianist Michelle Cann. The performance will also feature Courtney Bryan’s song “Yet Unheard,” featuring poetry by Sharan Strange in memory of Sandra Bland. 

This is the second concert Lee has organized around a civil rights issue. In 2015, she helped make “The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights” happen, a response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. While grieving the loss of these two individuals, and questioning the world in which lives are too easily stolen because of the color of one’s skin, Lee said she wanted to help. 

“It just hit me,” Lee explained to The New York Times, “that, as much as we were seeing a response from rap musicians and folk musicians and now more and more pop musicians, there was no such response from the classical music community.”

Classical music and activism aren’t often witnessed cooperating in a single space,though there are exceptions. The classical music scene can easily be described as traditional, or worse, elitist. The community at large is historically very white, and so the genre might seem untethered to current events or politics, largely because it has the privilege to be able to do so. Lee’s concert is out to change that.

Her 2015 show featured music by Leonard Bernstein and William Grant Still, and speeches by activists including Eric Garner’s daughter Erica. “Music is used as a source to gather people,” “The Dream Unfinished” clarinetist Patricia Billings explained in a video promoting the production. “To invite them to a safe environment to express their true thoughts and feelings about issues. I hope to use my art to create that environment, so we can have those tough discussions about civil rights.”

Sadly, Lee’s homage is as relevant now as ever, coming off a devastating week of violence and loss as issues of police brutality and prejudice within the justice system continue to demand our attention and action. Last week, Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for no other reason than legally selling CDs, becoming the 135th black person killed by police in 2016. Just one day later, Philando Castile was shot dead in his car by an officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, after being pulled over by police, becoming number 136. 

Although under the darkest of circumstances, “Sing Her Name” presents an opportunity for coming together, mourning and fighting for change.

 
 
 
 
"Sing Her Name" took place Wednesday, July 13, at 7:30 p.m. at Cooper Union.
 
 

The orchestral and choral concert featured a world premiere by composer Courtney Bryan, with text by poet Sharan Strange. Grammy-nominated and Grammy-award-winning conductors James Blachly and John McLaughlin Williams led the #SingHerName chorus and The Dream Unfinished Orchestra. Soloists include WQXR's Helga Davispianist Michelle Cann, and Kelly Hall-Tompkins of "Fiddler on the Roof," who acted as concertmaster for the performance. 

In addition to musical selections, Sing Her Name included appearances by Terrance McKnight (WQXR), Kimberle Crenshaw (African American Policy Forum), Gina Belafonte (Sankofa.org), Farah Griffin (Columbia University), Agunda Okeyo (Sisters of Comedy), Farah Tanis (Black Women’s Blueprint), composer Trevor Weston, and other artists and speakers.