"Greenwood Overcomes," from Tulsa Opera
Sunday, June 5, 2022
Through the distinctive compositions of 23 of the most gifted Black composers of our time, performed by eight extraordinary singers, Tulsa Opera celebrates resilience and hope in a commemoration of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, on demand.
Hear this concert using the audio player above.
On the program:
DAMIEN SNEED: Down By the Riverside
Denyce Graves, mezzo-soprano
DORIS MAE AKERS: There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit in this Place
Leona Mitchell, soprano
TYSHAWN SOREY: after Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, from Songs of Death
Davóne Tines, bass-baritone
PETER ASHBOURNE: Liza
Leah Hawkins, soprano
PETER ASHBOURNE: Nobody’s Business
Leah Hawkins, soprano
H. LESLIE ADAMS: Prayer
Issachah Savage, tenor
H. LESLIE ADAMS: Creole Girl
Noah Stewart, tenor
MARQUES L.A. GARRETT: O del mio amato ben
Leona Mitchell, soprano
ADOLPHUS HAILSTORK: My Heart to Thy Heart
Krysty Swann, mezzo-soprano
TANIA LEÓN: Mi amor es
Kevin Thompson, bass
STEWART GOODYEAR: One Perfect Rose (setting of a poem by Dorothy Parker; world premiere)
Leah Hawkins, soprano
STEWART GOODYEAR: Condolence (setting of a poem by Dorothy Parker; world premiere & Tulsa Opera commission)
Noah Stewart, tenor
KATHRYN BOSTIC: State of Grace (world premiere of piano arrangement)
Krysty Swann, mezzo-soprano
NKEIRU OKOYE: A Kiss On the Forehead (lyrics by Anita Gonzalez; world premiere)
Issachah Savage, tenor
B.E. BOYKIN: Secret
Leah Hawkins, soprano
JAMES LEE III: Songs for the People (setting of a poem by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper; world premiere & Tulsa Opera commission)
Denyce Graves, mezzo-soprano
VALERIE CAPERS: Billie’s Song
Howard Watkins, piano
DAVID BONTEMPS: Il a neigé (setting of a poem by Marie-Ange Jolicoeur; world premiere)
Kevin Thompson, bass
JASMINE BARNES: Sweet, Sweet Spirit
Leona Mitchell, soprano
DAVID BONTEMPS: Secret (setting of a poem by Marie-Ange Jolicoeur; world premiere)
Krysty Swann, mezzo-soprano
QUINN MASON: Eclipsed World, from Confessions from a Dream
Noah Stewart, tenor
ROLAND CARTER: Is There Anybody Here?
Issachah Savage, tenor
ANDRE MYERS: Harlem Night Song
Leah Hawkins, soprano
ROSEPHANYE POWELL: I Want to Die While You Love Me
Issachah Savage, tenor
ANTHONY DAVIS: There are Many Trails of Tears, from Fire Across the Tracks: Tulsa 1921 (Thulani David, librettist; world premiere & Tulsa Opera commission)
Davóne Tines, bass-baritone
CARLOS SIMON: Prayer (Gather Up)
Krysty Swann, mezzo-soprano
NOLAN WILLIAMS, JR.: He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands
Leona Mitchell, soprano
MELANIE DEMORE: Sending You Light
Denyce Graves, mezzo-soprano
J. ROSAMOND JOHNSON: Lift Every Voice and Sing (setting of a poem by James Weldon Johnson)
Denyce Graves, mezzo-soprano; company; audience
The 1921 race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one of the most devastating instances of racial violence in U.S. history, resulted in the deaths of hundreds and the loss of thousands of businesses and homes. A century later, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission co-produced, with Tulsa Opera, "Greenwood Overcomes," honoring the memory of what was commonly known as “Black Wall St.,” a vibrant, thriving Black community.
Co-curated by Tulsa Opera Artistic Director Tobias Picker and Metropolitan Opera Assistant Conductor and pianist Howard Watkins, the program features mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, soprano Leah Hawkins, soprano Leona Mitchell, tenor Issachah Savage, tenor Noah Stewart, mezzo-soprano Krysty Swann, bass Kevin Thompson, and bass-baritone Davóne Tines.
Hosted by Arun Rath of GBH News, the broadcast of selected portions of the concert (with the full concert available on demand) includes commentary from Howard Watkins and Davóne Tines, as well as reflections of Tobias Picker on the process of bringing together 23 Black composers for the program.
Arun Rath Tell me a little bit about how you heard about this project and were brought into it. It's pretty remarkable.
Davóne Tines Definitely. A bunch of friend-colleagues of mine, you know, other Black opera singers, were involved in this engagement. And I heard that Tulsa Opera would be putting on a concert that would kind of honor the centennial of the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa. And I became very interested in what it would be to be a part of such a memorial, essentially, because I think, you know, opera has the beautiful opportunity to speak directly to our collective histories and kind of provide a space for engagement of something that's pretty critical for people and the larger population of America, which is white, to understand, because there are a lot of histories and a lot of context that are not considered or they're relegated or they're footnoted even if they reach that sort of status. So, just the fact that this concert existed, it became something present in the conscience of opera audiences, which are, you know, largely white. And so, it's important for that sort of engagement to be there. Even if it's more ephemeral, it adds to a sort of awakening, to a broader reality within this country, and then also, for myself and my other colleagues, to give a cathartic space to engage a reality that we hadn't actually, you know, been depthfully connected to before. It's really what opera, I think, should be doing and can be doing. And so the opportunity to take part in that sort of work, operatically, was very, very intriguing.
Arun Rath And it's also, you know, it's commemorating a historical event, but it's all, it's about new music for the most part. And that's something that you've, I just know from what I've heard on recordings, like, you are an advocate of new music, at least from what you perform.
Davóne Tines Very much! I feel, or I've found that I can do some of my best work performing when I am deeply connected to the material. And I think that I am naturally interested in, what does it mean to engage the reality of current or present life, and new music has the opportunity or capability of doing that. And that's not to say that older music doesn't have the possibility of that either. You know, in my recent recital tour, I program a lot of Bach and also a lot of music from the mid-20th century. And it's all with an eye of, you know, how does this music continue to connect to today? And that means that the work has to be contextualized. The work has to be presented in a way to where the line of connection from the people living and breathing in the seats can understand that this is for you, and for your own personal engagement. So, as long as that sort of contextualization and connection is being made, I think that, personally, I can do something of merit within a performance. And it just so happens that contemporary music tends to have that sort of intentionality built into it, because everybody involved in the making of the new thing is on one accord as to why it's being made. You know, you don't have to dig as deep to find those modern, or those, you know, current connections. You have a larger amount of people that are already on board with the import of that work existing.
Arun Rath I'm just running through so many Bach pieces I would love to hear your voice on, but that's something we could talk about later on. Let's talk about the music, two of these pieces. The first one, and this is by one of the more well-known composers that's in the program, Anthony Davis, tell us about this piece, "There Are Many Trails of Tears." It's a deep work.
Davóne Tines Very much so. And, you know, right now, I'm actually in the middle of preparing the role of Malcolm X for Anthony's X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X. I'm here in Detroit right now, and I can see the opera house across the street. And it's just been, you know, getting deeper and deeper involved in Anthony's aesthetic and his collaborators' way of telling stories. And actually, the first piece of Anthony's music I ever really encountered or performed was this aria, "There Are Many Trails of Tears," which is the first thing he wrote from this opera, Fire on the Tracks, which is about Greenwood, which is about the Tulsa race massacre.
And the piece and Anthony's vocabulary, as I continue to find, is this really brilliant combination of somewhat more idiosyncratic American jazz tradition and contemporary classical music that might be thought of in the way of, I don't know, Stravinsky or Schoenberg or John Adams. You know, there's really a lot of intersecting shades from a lot of different worlds that I think he employs dramatically in different ways to show deeper emotion or psychology, which is kind of one of the greater possibilities of opera. And it's just incredible that he can move from, you know, certain more bluesy sections with easy storytelling, as happens in this aria, to things that are kind of profoundly contemporary, but never losing a sense of rhythm and drive that come from a sort of Black American or jazz aesthetic. So, it's really a kaleidoscopic way of telling a story that really embodies, you know, how can somebody pull on all of the resources that they have access to, to tell a rich story?
Arun Rath And the particular story in this, as you mentioned, it's taken from a larger work. What's the story that's being told? And tell us how you approach that as a singer.
Davóne Tines Definitely. I mean, so, you know, something like a massacre is of a large scale, and there's a lot going on in terms of, you know, destruction, and what is a community doing to fight or protect itself. And I think the way that Thulani and Anthony decided to walk into that immensity was to tell the story from the perspective of one person. And that person is Buck Franklin, someone who basically migrated with their family to the West as part of the Great Migration. And it just starts with Buck giving a bit of his own family history, which is about his father having been enslaved by Native Americans, actually, which is a complicated part of American history we don't engage so much, but also talking about how a lot of Black Americans, there's intermingling of race with whiteness through enslavement, which is very complicated. But there's also similarly intermixing with Native American populations that are kind of addressed in the first third of the opera.
Personally, my family also inhabits that, too. A part of my family is connected to the Blackfoot Indians from North Dakota. So, it was interesting to be able to sing the role of a person who has a very similar, unique makeup familially. But, you know, giving that broader context and then walking to how he came to Greenwood as a very hopeful person, you know, wanting to set up their own business, wanting to be in a community of Black people that was very aspirational and very much building generational wealth, I mean, something that has been an American ideal for a very long time, and just kind of having the hope and drive that that could occur. And then zeroing in on the more personal narrative of, you know, describing in detail his experience with this massacre, you know, hearing a buzzing in the far distance and then realizing that there were planes approaching, and then describing fires that were taken on around him, and then really just giving a personal kind of war story or battle account of what happened. So, you know, in the arc of one piece of music or one song, essentially you get a person's historical context, you get an idea of what their hopes or aspirations are. And then you hear in a very detailed way how those things were obliterated.
Arun Rath Finally, the Tyshawn Sorey piece that's "after Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Tell us about that, what we're hearing and how you approached it.
Davóne Tines Definitely. I really fell in love with Tyshawn's work when I heard my dear friend and colleague Julia Bullock perform the, kind of the first draft of a piece that she was making called Pearl Noire, which is on the life of Josephine Baker. And I heard that at the Ojai Music Festival some years ago. And it was, you know, a late night concert in a kind of open amphitheater and this very amazing atmosphere that Tyshawn was able to build, where he and Julia, Tyshawn playing in the band, of course, with members made up of the International Contemporary Ensemble, and just deconstructing these Josephine Baker songs to kind of show what might be going on underneath them, or kind of allowing a space to engage the complexity of Josephine Baker's life and existence as a Black performer.
And so, I was just astounded by the emotional depth he was able to create by that sort of, you know, fracturing of a popular song. And so, when I came to create my recital program, Recital No. 1: MASS, which took many years to figure out completely, I knew that I wanted to involve spirituals. You know, I love spirituals, and they're a part of, you know, as Leontyne Price puts it, they are my Lied, or they are my Lieder. And so, I knew I had to include spirituals, but I didn't want to do them in the way that they're traditionally done. Usually, you know, Black American singers in this, what, you know, late 21st century, we usually do H.T. Burleigh arrangements, which are wonderful in their own right. But they also take on the model of trying to kind of "art song-ify" spirituals in a way, or put them in a sort of, you know, mid-twentieth century Western European aesthetic, which is interesting and, you know, continues to be a part of the complexity of Black music that even finds its place in the church.
But I wanted to think, you know, what else could be done to engage the literature of the spirituals? So, on one end, I sang arrangements by Moses Hogan, who is a more contemporary Black gospel writer, and I think brings a different way of looking at that material. And then on the other end, I was really excited to see, what could Tyshawn Sorey do with songs that were very popularly engaged, but maybe not more depthfully understood? So, I gave him the assignment of essentially ripping the sheen off of these spirituals, and three of them. So, "after Swing Low" is part of a set of three spirituals that are called Songs for Death. And it's this idea that a lot of spirituals, you know, are misconstrued, or kind of coded as being happy, but essentially, they're, you know, songs that are coming from people that are in the height of the deepest degradation that has happened within humanity. So, the music that they create is very complex and actually contains a darker psychology of what it means to contend with existing.
So, a lot of spirituals, their texts can be read as suicide notes, essentially. You know, "Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home," is essentially saying, "I hope my maker comes and takes me to another place." Or, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" you know, talking about leaving and going to another place and having some sort of peace, but also witnessing that sort of transformation. And then, "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," is, you know, singing about the coming of a savior, but also singing about the abuse, essentially, or, you know, humanity disrespecting in the ultimate way that that savior or somebody that could, you know, provide some sense of hope. So, these songs have much darker psychology that I think needs to be present, especially for a larger white audience, you know, just to draw a pretty direct and maybe striking connection. The reason why, I think, a lot of spirituals and slave songs were so happy was that they would be misread by people that didn't really understand, you know, what's happening in that sort of double consciousness, as DuBois later finally outlines for us.
And so, you know, you've got the idea of a slave master sitting on a porch listening to "happy darkies" singing in the field. But essentially, they're singing about their terror, their degradation and possibly their hope. And oddly enough, I think a lot of larger white audiences might still engage those songs in that way and think that they're about some sort of positivity or a beauty of spirit, which they are. But, you know, there's the potential to completely discount what is more deeply going on, especially if they're, you know, in a major key and have a certain uplift within the tune. So, I did not want to be presenting these songs in a way that they could be misengaged, that they could continue to be misread. So, I gave, as I said, Tyshawn, the assignment of ripping the sheen off of these songs in order to show their darker psychology. And so, he did precisely what he had done with Julia and the Josephine Baker piece and saying, okay, we can refract these songs, we can recompose their melodies, we can take fragments of what you're familiar with, and we can drop them into an atmosphere that makes it unavoidable what is more depthfully occurring.
Arun Rath Davóne Tynes, it has been such a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.
Davóne Tines Thank you.
Arun Rath Tobias Picker is the artistic director of the Tulsa Opera. Tobias, thanks for joining us.
Tobias Picker Thank you for asking me.
Arun Rath And while we're at it, thank you for this concert.
Tobias Picker Well, it was a labor of love, and it was something that I count as one of the most important things I've ever done.
Arun Rath Wow. Well, let's go back to the origins of it, because I was thinking about, you know, for the anniversary of this last year, thinking about the weight of history on you there in Tulsa. How did you all even start the conversation about how to address something like this artistically?
Tobias Picker You want the real story, or?
Arun Rath Yeah, please.
Tobias Picker Several years ago, when I learned about the massacre. When I first came to Tulsa, actually, as artistic director in 2016, I was invited to a dinner party to meet some people important to the company, longtime supporters of the company. And I said, "Tell me about the Tulsa race riot, which I just heard about." And one of the guests at the dinner who's on our board said to me, "Tobias, that was not a riot. That was a massacre." And that was the very first I'd ever heard of it. That was in '16 and I said, "What do you mean?" She said, "My granddaddy got his shotgun out and went downtown."
Arun Rath Wow.
Tobias Picker So that was kind of chilling and was the first I heard of it. And it, so then, you know, they told me more about it and what really happened and it was shocking and it just felt very important that I had been given to understand it was a riot when in fact, it was a massacre. I mean, that was a primary source telling me. Her grandfather was one of the people who shot people. Her family had, you know, it was 100 years ago. And I realized that it would be 100 years in five years. So I started talking to Tony Davis, an old colleague of mine, the composer Anthony Davis, about the massacre. And my idea was to ask him to write an opera for us to commemorate the massacre. And I set about trying to set up a commission to create a new opera for the centennial that we would premiere in May of '21. We went quite far down that road from the operas and the composer's point of view, and Thulani, his cousin, was going to do the libretto, but we we kept running into walls in every community. So I realized this entire subject was still very sensitive in Tulsa, so much so that at the Historical Society when you entered, there are two entrances to an exhibit. On one side it said the Tulsa Race Riot and on the other side it said the Tulsa Race Massacre. Because some people in Tulsa didn't at the time want to call it a massacre. They wanted to call it a riot still. So you can imagine that, you know, the hundred years did not erase everything. You know, there was a wound that was still gaping, I would say. And it became apparent that it was going to be very, very difficult to fulfill this vision I had of the new opera from Anthony for the commemoration.
Eventually it was put on the back burner. We thought we would get to do it at some point. Perhaps after the centennial we would be able to do it. The Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission was formed shortly after that, and I spoke with them about it a little bit, but they were supportive of it. But then there was a change of leadership there and the will to do it in the community, I didn't have the backing in the community that I needed to commission an opera. Plus, the idea of commissioning a new opera for this company is a new idea, actually. Even though we're about to celebrate our 75th anniversary, it's still new no matter who is commissioned about what. So that's very important to keep in mind. So it was put on the back burner and then '21 started approaching and sometime about a year before, maybe nine months, I thought I should get back in touch with the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission. TRMCC, or something. So I made an appointment, there was a new director, then, Phil Armstrong, and I went to see him and I said, Tulsa Opera would like to do a concert that would commemorate the centennial. And he said he thought that would be a great thing to do. He remembered a concert Jessye Norman had done, with maybe Kathy Battle or somebody, of spirituals, and he thought, oh, that would be nice to have spirituals and some things from Porgy and Bess. And I said, that's not really what I have in mind for this. What I would like to do is to only represent Black composers who are alive, Black composers who are alive. And that I wanted to be composer centric. That it would be a showcase for great living Black composers and Black artists singing their work. And he loved that idea and he was enormously supportive. And so was the Race Massacre Commission, of the whole project from beginning to end.
So I called my old colleague, Howard Watkins, who's assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and a rehearsal pianist, and was rehearsal pianist for my opera there, An American Tragedy, which was when we worked together 20 years before and asked him if he would co-curate this concert with me. And he agreed. And to also be the pianist for it. And so we embarked on this project, and "how to begin" was the question. And so we talked about various composers we knew about. And I said, you know, there must be an awful lot of composers that we don't know about. And so I found a website devoted to living Black composers, only living Black composers. And it's a it's an extraordinary website. It's very comprehensive. And there are hundreds of composers documented there with their dates of birth, their publishers, if they have one, contact information. And so with my artistic administrator, Aaron Beck, the three of us divided the list of names of composers, which was 300 plus, and we would have regular meetings to talk about what we had discovered, and then we would share what we discovered with each other. And we created a long short list of of composers and works. And from that, we created a program. And also I wanted to commission some new pieces.
And that brought back the idea of "Fire Across the Tracks," which was the name of the opera that Anthony and Thulani want to write for us, and which we still hope they'll be able to. In the interim Anthony won the Pulitzer Prize in music, so he's become very, very busy and he's been rediscovered. So if he has the time and we can pull our end of it together, we'll one day finish this commission. But I did commissioned a scene, aria scene from the opera, which Anthony and Thulani wrote and Davóne Tines gave the world premiere of at this concert. We commissioned four composers to write new pieces. Anthony was one, and then I found four other composers who'd written songs or arias that had never been performed. Stewart Goodyear had two songs, I think, that had never been performed, and David Bontemps, I discovered this amazing composer from Haiti, living in, I think, Montreal, and he had this beautiful songs that had never been performed. So we did eight world premieres and eight really first rate artists singing. Eight world premieres on a concert in which 23 living Black composers were represented. And nothing else.
The concert was, well, we'll hear it now. But it was beautifully staged by Danny Kyle. And they all had gorgeous gowns. And we we commissioned a muralist who had done the Black Wall Street mural that's in Greenwood today to do special backdrops, which we projected behind the singers. It was very atmospheric. And there were scenes of Greenwood from the days of the massacre, before the massacre, the massacre, and today. Where because Greenwood is being heavily developed now and a lot of people are moving to Greenwood. It was really a beautiful concert. And it took place in the midst of COVID and on May 1st, '21. And it was the only time we were we've been back in the Performing Arts Center of Tulsa since COVID started, since our last show there in February of '20. So we did that concert and it was, I wanted it to be a celebration of life, because somehow I felt, my connection to this horrific event was in my blood as a member of the Jewish race. And when the Jews bury the dead, they do it very fast and they celebrate their life. We celebrate life. We emphasize life, not death. You know, it's the next day. And then we go on with our lives. We mourn, we grieve. But it felt to me the correct thing to do was to celebrate all these incredibly gifted and important Black composers who most people had never heard of. Most people in the previously white-dominated classical music and opera world. This is an example of systemic racism because there are all these jewels that are undiscovered and unknown. And if people only got to hear them, you know, it would, music is what changes the world. As a musician, I can only change the world with music. Let's put it that way. And I thought this could change the world a little bit. Just a little bit.
And the idea that these composers and this music was unknown to me as a white composer. I mean, not all of it. I knew some of it, but there was a lot I'd never heard of. There was a lot Howard Watkins had never heard of. And when I asked for the repertoire of my eight stars, Denyce Graves and everybody else, I said, "Please give me a list. Give us a list of living Black composers's songs and arias that you have in your repertoire." And there wasn't much there. There's a little bit, but not much. So once Howard and I chose all the music and we took into account these lists, Davóne had offered a piece by Tyshawn Sorey. We did that piece, too. Was not a world premiere, though. And then he did the world premiere of the "Fire Across the Tracks" aria. But most of the singers, we said, "Would you be interested in doing this? Would you be interested in doing that?" And they were just, a lot of the singers were discovering music that they didn't know, composers they had never heard of. And I would think some of them have gone on to keep some of those pieces in their repertoire for future performance.
I don't know how to describe how powerful the message came across to me. I don't know how to describe it, that I talked a lot about systemic racism in our meetings because we were all very surprised about what we discovered and what we didn't know and what the singers didn't know. So this was a deprivation of Black, that it deprived Black, the fact that it wasn't known, or how it ended up becoming so obscure, you know, it hurts Black artists not to know the music of living Black composers or even, you know, recently living Black composers. I'm not making any broad generalities. There are a lot of Black singers, more and more who who are really getting into and researching this repertoire and doing more and more of it. But I really wanted to open, throw open the doors and shine a light on this repertoire in a kind of grand way. It wasn't an opera. It was a concert, was a gala concert, but it was grand and big. And it was really beautiful.
Arun Rath It's marvelous looking over the list of the composers that you're talking about, that again, with many that honestly, I never, I thought I knew composers working now, especially people of color. And there's so many that I'd never heard of. In that group, though, it's all African-American, but it's a very diverse group. There's age diversity, background, style. It's quite, quite an interesting mix.
Tobias Picker Well, it's also, I guess Jamaica is not part of America, is it?
Arun Rath We can decide it is. Or...
Tobias Picker Because there's the wonderful Jamaican composer we discovered. Leah Hawkins sang two of his pieces. And Haitian. I tried to include some Black English composers, Eleanor Alberga and various other composers who I knew about and some that I didn't. But I couldn't find the right repertoire that worked. So I guess it was all American except for the islands and that. But it doesn't surprise me at all that there's so much musical diversity and stylistic diversity among several hundred Black composers because that's diversity. It's the first word I think of when I think of, "What is American music?" It's the diversity of styles within each genre, within classical music, within popular music. It's just vast, and that's what America is. So there's such a diversity of styles in American music, and it's a very big country. There's no homogeneity of styles in American music, and there never was. But it's something that's constantly growing, and that's what distinguishes American music from the rest of the world.
Arun Rath You talked about this marvelous process of discovery, getting to know these composers and artists. Can you talk a bit more about when it got to the stage of rehearsal, working with the singers and with the piano? The discovery process once you were engaging with the works, what those conversations were like.
Tobias Picker Putting the show together, it was kind of joyous. There was like this joyous atmosphere that everyone was feeling, and all the singers, the company. Usually when you put on an opera or show, there are problems and, you know, aggravation and this and that. An illness or somebody is very high maintenance or there's some problem that's technical or something or other. But this was like, it just was so smooth. And it was it was everyone was so happy. Everyone was just excited to do it. And so there was this joy of... I mean, joy, yes, mixed with sadness. But it was a celebration of Black American composers and Black artists. And so, yes, it was for the centennial of the massacre. We showed images from the massacre. There were a couple of pieces about the massacre itself. But since we were drawing on music that had been composed already by living composers today, there wasn't anything on that list of hundreds of composers about the Tulsa Race Massacre. Nothing. So we began the commissioning of "Fire Across the Tracks," which I hope one day to see realized. The concert was about healing. This is what our partners at the Race Massacre Centennial Commission wanted. This is what we wanted. And it felt the right thing to do. And so people left the concert with a feeling of healing and of discovery. Discovering this catalog of, you know, just of sublime music.
Arun Rath It's interesting hearing you talking about it. It sounds, you know, as much as it's the culmination of something, it almost sounds like you're talking about the beginning of something.
Tobias Picker Well, I think we all hope that healing and reconciliation can begin. We hope that it can begin. And we try to begin it as best we can. We could have curated the concert in a very different way by just doing music that had been written since 1921 by Black composers, and that we could have had a mixture then of living and dead composers. There are many ways to approach, but I just wanted all alive composers. I don't know why that is. I mean, I guess there's nothing too mysterious about the fact that I might have a certain prejudice in favor of living composers, you know, not being a dead one yet myself. So I tend to prefer being a living composer rather than being a dead one. So I don't know. It's just a prejudice I have. I don't have anything against dead composers, believe me. But I just, I think it's important for all of us to understand that this is a living art form practiced by living people that walk among us and that we meet on trains and airplanes and in the supermarket, and not an art form practiced by dead composers. Because that's how classical music has come to be seen by, you know, as some this thing from the past when it is completely, is most certainly not. It's very much of the present. And as to the future, it will continue to be as long as we are here and as long as there's music.
Arun Rath Tobias, it has been a great pleasure speaking with you about all of this. Thank you.
Tobias Picker Thank you. It's been a pleasure to talk about it and a year later to remember it and be in it again. A lot has happened in the last year, just since then.
Arun Rath Howard Watkins, thank you so much, first off, for this concert, but also for taking the time to talk with us in detail about this amazing music.
Howard Watkins Thank you. It's really a pleasure to be here, and so appreciative that you're doing this.
Arun Rath So tell us the story of of how this came together, both the idea for the concert and your own involvement in it.
Howard Watkins I had the pleasure of working with Tobias Picker at the Met Opera a few years ago when he did "American Tragedy," when the Met did "American Tragedy." And I was one of the music staff on his show, so I got to work with him and know him on a new piece that he was creating. And just through everything that that entails, the process of working with the singers, working with the music, teaching new music, making changes in the music. And so when he contacted me with the idea of doing this concert and doing something in commemoration of the Tulsa Massacre, he asked if I would be interested in participating as a performer, but also as a co-curator with him. And knowing my great experience I had with him before, I thought, yeah, that sounds great. I would love to be involved with that.
Arun Rath And as we mentioned, we had a conversation with Tobias about how this came together and wanted to play this this clip from our interview for you. And you might have heard this story, but it was something that just, when we heard it talking to him, you know, it was just kind of amazing the proximity of the history, I'll put it that way. But let me play this for you. And then we can we can we can talk about it.
Tobias Picker Several years ago when I learned about the massacre, when I first came to Tulsa, actually as Artistic Director in 2016, I was invited to a dinner party to meet some people important to the company, longtime supporters of the company. And I said, "Tell me about the Tulsa race riot, which I just heard about. And one of the guests at the dinner who's on our board said to me, "Tobias, that was not a riot. That was a massacre." And that was the very first I'd ever heard of it. And I said, "What do you mean?" She said, "My granddaddy got his shotgun out and went downtown." So that was kind of chilling.
Howard Watkins [Whistles] That's incredible. A couple of things pop into mind hearing that. I mean, it just goes to show there's not always so much distance between now and when these things happened. And, you know, people, I think some people tend to think, "Oh, that's so long ago, in the past." Well, no, this lady related to our company that we're talking about now had a grandfather who participated. And, you know, it's a big difference whether or not it's a riot and whether or not it's a massacre. You know, this difference in where the power is coming from. So that's quite an amazing story. I'm sure that gave Tobias even more impetus to want to make this happen.
Arun Rath Right? I mean, it almost kind of, as you're saying that, it makes me think how it underscores all of the reasons for undertaking this concert and centralizing Black voices that haven't been heard.
Howard Watkins Exactly. I really admired that about Tobias, that he really wanted to go the last mile digging through. We went through websites and lists of composers, probably upwards of 500 different composers trying to find people who maybe had not been represented as well and whose music had not had a chance to shine. And just to show, there are so many different kinds of composers, of Black composers who need to be heard and whose voices need to get out there. And I just loved his commitment to doing that. We met weekly, sometimes multiple times weekly, and talked about all the composers. We all broke up the list and divided it and did what research we could on the composers looking for music, looking to see what they had written for voice and piano or for voice and some instrumental ensemble which we eventually ended up not doing. So it meant a lot of time, a lot of meetings and a lot of discussion. It wasn't just a quick selection of people. And so we really, by the time we arrived at the performance, we really felt happy with the people we had come up with and that we were putting out to the public.
Arun Rath Well, let's talk about them and about this music, which is why we're here, which is just wonderful to have you for. Tell us a bit about what we heard to start off with on a strong kind of spiritual theme.
Howard Watkins Well, the one thing that's really fun with this group that you just heard is they are pieces that are probably more familiar in older versions. And these reimaginings or reinventions of them seemed like a really fun way to start off the concert. "Down by the Riverside" is obviously spiky and funky and the accompaniment, and it's a well-known song, but you haven't heard it this way, in Damien Sneed's, from Damien Sneed's "Spiritual Sketches." "There's a Sweet, Sweet Spirit," also a familiar hymn, but set in this gentle way, as a beautiful way of highlighting Leona Mitchell's great voice. The Tyshawn Sorey explores death and the darkness side of "Swing Low" much more than the more familiar "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" that we know. And the last two pieces are a completely fun way to end this group. Peter Ashbourne is a Jamaican composer, and he loved the idea of keeping the integrity of the melodic line. But everything else was fair game, so it's really witty and fun, sparkling and spunky in the accompaniment and always gets a big laugh and reaction from the audience.
Arun Rath And going forward. Tradition is still very much present, but in a very different way. We're going to start off hearing from composer H. Leslie Adams. The text is from the great Langston Hughes.
Howard Watkins Yes, absolutely. There are a number of pieces from Langston Hughes, one of the heroes of African-American poetry. And we'll hear to two works of Leslie Adams from "Night Songs," one of his best known groups. "Prayer," which is slow and hypnotic and beautiful in the writing, and "Creole Girl," which captures the energy and spunkiness and rhythmic excitement that one might associate with Cuba. And it draws on this southern Louisiana Creole heritage and lots of international influences.
It's really fun to hear "O del mio amato ben" this way. It's a very well-known piece by Stefano Donaudy, and that's the setting that most singers know. But hearing this new version is really special. It's a little less optimistic than the Donaudy that we know and a little darker. And it's interesting to hear that next to this virtuosic outburst of Adolphus Hailstork in the Paul Laurence Dunbar. Fun fact about Paul Laurence Dunbar, also one of the African American poetic heroes. He's born and died in Dayton, Ohio, which is my hometown. So I grew up with knowledge and and just hearing about and knowing about the heritage of Paul Laurence Dunbar. It was especially wonderful to do a piece like that "O del mio amato ben" with the great Leona Mitchell, a voice, a golden voice of historic importance. And hearing her sing this kind of repertoire with her beautiful lyricism was really a great honor and really fun to do that next to a younger up and coming singer, Krysty Swan, singing "My Heart to Thy Heart" with passion and power and just real enjoyment in singing, but from a totally different perspective in life.
Two of the composers, Nkeiru and Stewart, have worked here, so one older preexisting work and then one newly composed for this piece. So inside is what remains a big vehicle for our great Leona Mitchell, as you heard. And it has lots of space in it, lots of lyricism, room for improvization, both in the piano and in the voice. And the other one was from her opera, "Home of my Ancestors," with Issachah Savage, and again, some room for improvization, beautifully lyric. Lots of improvization allowed and encouraged. For the earlier, in the earlier group, we had two Stewart Goodyear pieces. Stewart's probably better known as a pianist, concert pianist, but he's an excellent composer also. And he's composed here pieces that capture the sarcasm and edgy side of Dorothy Parker. The newly composed one is "Condolence," and that was with Noah Stewart, the wonderful tenor who we heard before, and "One Perfect Rose," with Leah Hawkins, who we also heard before. They're more harmonically adventurous, a little bit drier sounding, but it is perfect for the exasperated feel of the text. Bracketing those, we have the meditative piece of Kathryn Bostic, "State of Grace," and starting the group, the Cuban composer Tania Léon, who you can tell from the way that's written, is a fantastic pianist in her own right. A fantastic composer. Lots of rumba rhythm, very virtuosic piano part. Probably harder even than it sounds. And that was with the fantastic bass, Kevin Thompson.
Arun Rath It feels like there's maybe a little bit of an emotional turn in the concert here. Now we're going to hear a couple of pieces, first from B.E. Boykin and then from James Lee III. The first piece by Boykin is called "Secret."
Howard Watkins Yes. It was really fun to work on this piece of B.E. Boykin. Our great Leah Hawkins, who we heard earlier in the Ashbourne pieces, really captures the playfulness and the being in love with someone. And what happens when you play with them lightly, playing with their hair and whispering and this kind of thing. So with a light, sparkling, repetitive piano accompaniment, it kind of sets you up lightly for the next piece of James Lee sung by our national treasure Denyce Graves, "Songs for the People." "Songs for the People" is based on the texts of Frances E.W. Harper, one of the first African-American women to be published in the United States. It has lyricism. It has declamatory outbursts in the piano. And it's bold. It captures the call to action and the resolve that we get from Harper's text. James Lee, our composer, did a fantastic job composing this in a relatively short period of time, but that was no measure of the quality that he came up with.
Arun Rath Howard, "Billie's Song" makes you think of of "Billie's Bounce." Is there a little Charlie Parker reference in there?
Howard Watkins Well, that I couldn't tell you about, sorry to say, but it's a simple little ballad. It's dedicated to Billie Holiday. And I think it's a nice moment to sit back and imagine a singer, but not necessarily have one there other than my right hand.
Arun Rath And tell us a bit about "Il a neigé."
Howard Watkins "Il a neigé" is a beautiful piece. Both Kevin Thompson, the bass, and our composer David Bontemps captured so well the solitude and kind of sadness, grief of this text with a very simple spare kind of accompaniment. It's repetitive, but in a way that's clearly sad, as you heard. It's interesting that "I Want to Die While You Love Me" is one of two songs which Issachah sang in this section. And he's such a glorious tenor with a lot of beautiful lyricism and heft in his voice. It was the first time I had the pleasure of working with him. And they're so well-suited to these two pieces, the Rosephanye Powell piece, "I Want to Die While You Love Me," very sweet and passionate. And "Is There Anybody Here," exceptionally religiously fervent and Issachah captures that fantastically. The other pieces in this section, Quinn Mason's "Eclipsed World," it's very colorful, as you heard, and it has this kind of suspended animation feel about it. It's really expansive. Like in the text you hear about the tranquil universe and solitude. He captures that so beautifully in the piano accompaniment. It's kind of an orchestral sound, actually. And "Harlem Night Song" brings to light our fantastic Langston Hughes that we've talked about so often. And Leah Hawkins is excellent at capturing the heat and the lassitude of a Harlem summer evening. It's just a kind of a slow waltz. Almost nostalgic feeling.
Arun Rath Hmm. Next up, we have a piece by one of the more famous composers, I would say, one of the more well known, Anthony Davis. Tell us about this. This is pretty interesting. The title is "There Are Many Trails of Tears."
Howard Watkins Yes, the Anthony Davis piece is the commission piece. And it's the one from this concert that really captures in the words and in the music, the events surrounding the 1921 massacre. It's a bigger work. It's more of a narrative and a ballad than some of the other pieces that we had that just had one feeling. It tells the story. And in the piano part and in the writing, it starts from one level and increases from 0 to 60 until the end when we actually hear the the attacking and we hear the shooting and firing from the planes. It's rhythmically and harmonically quite complex. And it has jazz elements, but they're just through composed and it's rhythmically complex. Yeah, it's quite a fantastic piece. And Davóne Tines, who sang earlier in our Tyshawn Sorey piece, is just excellent at singing this kind of repertoire. He has a great ear and passion for it.
Arun Rath And Howard, tell us a bit about what's being portrayed here.
Howard Watkins Well, we know from some eyewitness accounts from the massacre that there were low flying airplanes from which people were firing down on those who were participating, on the Blacks who were massacred. And so Anthony Davis has captured that in the end of the, the sounds of that in the end of the piece. And in fact, there's an audio track that's added to the piano and the voice. And you can hear the sounds of the planes and of the shooting.
Arun Rath Wow. I'm with Howard Watkins, the co-curator and pianist, for this wonderful concert on, Howard, spirituals. I should maybe even say spirituality, in many facets, all the way through this.
Howard Watkins Yes. Carlos Simon's "Prayer." It's a prayer, but it captures more of the downtrodden and those who are on the outside of society. And it's a prayer for them, the downtrodden, the rejected. Carlos Simon, it was wonderful that we were able to include this piece of his. He's really one of the bright lights of newer composers, and he's getting to be better and better known. Since this concert, I've actually done this actual piece probably on two or three other concerts and many other works of Carlos. He's doing very well. He's working now in Washington National Opera, among other places. And he's just terrific. Our other piece, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," is probably better known in the Margaret Bonds arrangement, which is more commonly performed. But in this wonderful arrangement of Nolan Williams, we capture more of the exuberant and big side of things. And it's a perfect vehicle for the Metropolitan Opera star Leona Mitchell, who's also, by the way, a Tulsa native. So it was especially wonderful and honorable that she could participate in this concert in this way.
These last two pieces that we did in the concert with the great Denyce Graves were one of Melanie Demore, "Sending You Light." And one of the memories I will always have of this is in the preparation, I got to have a phone conversation with her. And she's a remarkable, remarkable person. The quality and the wonderfulness that I discovered in talking to her is reflected in this piece. It's absolutely hypnotic. It's like a, it's almost like a meditation. And I think the previous performances of it were with her performing with her pianist Julie Wolfe. And she herself has an incredible contralto voice. And it was very, very special to hear her perform it and then to be able to do the performance with Denyce Graves. And of course, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" is the African-American national anthem. And it's a perfect way to end this concert with something that's positive and uplifting and familiar to all the great performers on the stage. It was led by Denyce, but we were joined by all the incredible singers from this concert. And it was a great pleasure to end this way.
Arun Rath That's Howard Watkins, the co-curator of this concert, "Greenwood Overcomes," by the Tulsa Opera. He's also an assistant conductor with the Metropolitan Opera. And Howard, I just got to say, at this point, I'm so grateful. Thank you so much for this wonderful music and especially for bringing these voices to our attention, to our airwaves.
Howard Watkins Thank you. Thank you. And I have to say, selfishly, that I was especially happy to be able to discover and learn about these voices for my own selfish reasons, just to get their music in my ears and to enjoy and to have the pleasure of spreading it to other places as I go forward.
Learn more about Greenwood Overcomes:
- Performer biographies
- Composer biographies
- Program notes on world premiere songs
- A message from Co-Curators Tobias Picker and Howard Watkins