"I Dream a World," from the New World Symphony
The Miami-based orchestra celebrates the artistic explosion emanating from 1920s New York, with music and poetry inspired by the Harlem Renaissance, on demand.
Sunday, January 29
Part One — "Noir Reverberations: Music and Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance and Beyond"
Poems, chamber music, and songs illuminate the artistic vitality of the Harlem Renaissance, with New Yorker poetry editor Kevin Young, the New World Symphony Fellows, and The Ambassador Chorale of Florida Memorial University.
Kevin Young is the poetry editor of the New Yorker and director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. He and James Bennett II began by talking about the musical undercurrents of poetry.
Kevin Young I think the poetry in African American poetry especially, you know, makes use of music quite a bit. It turns to it, it uses its forms, it uses its structure. And I've edited a number of books, and one was a blues poems anthology and another was of jazz poems. And in that I said that, you know, in the blues, the form of the blues fights the feeling of the blues. And I think someone like Langston Hughes, who we're going to hear from in this program, you know, really embodies that. He is trying to have us think about what he calls "laughing to keep from crying". And that's very much there.
Kevin Young But in jazz, you have the ways that the form is the feeling. You know, the way that the music moves teaches us how we feel. A Coltrane solo, or a Louis Armstrong solo or, you know, Ella Fitzgerald, they are all capturing a mood, you know, often wordlessly through scatting or through their instruments, some of which is the human voice.
Kevin Young And so I think those are both lessons that African American poets have taken to heart, and they're invested in forms and invested in the ways that forms can fight the feeling of blues or oppression or pain. But also they're interested in the ways that you can get in a flow and you can riff and craft and expand one's horizons. And poetry can do that, I think better than anything. It can capture a moment and extend it. And I think music can do that too, of course. And so those are some of the affinities I think music and poetry have.
James Bennett II So you just name dropped a number of jazz musicians, which are the program, you know, you're here. There's some poetry by Langston Hughes or some poetry by, I believe, Pauli Murray. But we're in this classical institution, for lack of a better phrase, and I'm just thinking about the name recognition that's going on here. Do you think we remember, or society remembers our black poets more than our black classical composers? Why do you think that is, if that's the case? I could be wrong about this.
Kevin Young I mean, I think one can always know more. You know, one of the things about Langston Hughes is in his lifetime, sometimes people thought of him as a kind of popular, pleasant poet. And now we see the ways that he was, you know, crafting form. He was writing about, you know, what happens to a dream deferred. He was thinking about Harlem and its changes in the United States and its changes African American society and life and all its varieties. And, you know, when he was first writing in the twenties, for instance, it was not seen as popular for him to write about waiters and busboys and the people he knew. And so I think that's some of the transformation.
Kevin Young I think obviously classical music is such a powerful tradition that African Americans have long participated in. And, you know, hearing some of the work, whether it's William Grant Still or hearing, you know, Duke Ellington, you see the ways that Ellington is making the, famously, making his orchestra into an instrument and playing it like that. And I think sometimes we see them as opposite, jazz and classical music. And, you know, there's people like Max Roach, who I believe preferred American classical music as a definition of jazz to help us kind of get past some of these categories.
Kevin Young And I tend to believe in what Duke Ellington said when asked, you know, about music. He said, there's only two kinds of music, good music and the other kind. You know, and he's really trying to get us to think past genre. And I think that's one of the things that sometimes stops us is genre, but also how these genres have grown up and are perceived, and so it's important on a night like tonight to celebrate these two intertwined traditions. There's music that Langston Hughes wrote, for instance, as one of the song selections. So I think it's important to see the connections rather than how they might be separate in some way.
James Bennett II You know, you said you described correctly, you know, the Schomburg [Center for Research in Black Culture] being at the heart of the original Harlem Renaissance, you know, some ninety plus years ago. But you followed that up with how the institute is there today to think about the new renaissance. And I wanted to know what signals the end of a renaissance or the beginning of a new one. Is this not one continual movement? How are you delineating that?
Kevin Young Well, it's a great question. I mean, you know, some of these things...I love eras and I love thinking about "When does something start and when does something begin and end?" That's part of your question. But I also think the Schomburg is important because it was situated right in the heart of Harlem. It connects people like Langston Hughes, who was a big supporter of it, Arturo Schomburg, who collected all the poets of the Harlem Renaissance and was connected to them, and many of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and painters as well, studied at the Schomburg, did research for their works there.
Kevin Young And so it has that important connection. I think, you know, people argue about when the Harlem Renaissance ends, and I think we, and I do in a book I did African American poetry, try to extend it through the thirties, which allows us to think about especially women writers who weren't always published as early even during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance. Zora Neale Hurston, for instance, doesn't have books till the mid-thirties. So I think it's important to think about that.
Kevin Young But in terms of today, just from the explosion of poets and the ways that there's so many interesting kinds of black television, for instance, African American film, you really see a kind of meeting of not only the creativity, which is always been there, and that's always there in all times. So that is continuity. But there isn't always the opportunity either being made or crafted or stolen from whatever means one can. And so I think right now you see publication and recognition of some of these terrific poets, for instance, just to take them and that explosion of them.
Kevin Young There are hardly enough pages to include them. And the anthology I did, for instance, even though it's around 1000 pages and covers 250 years. And so I think that expansiveness is part of it, the breadth of the publishing efforts. And also I think there's something about, and this for me was important, people starting their own movement, starting their own magazines, starting their own workshops or things like Cave Canem. So I think that's part of it.
Kevin Young Now they're always doing that in different ways, but we can look to something like the Black Arts Movement as a time when the culture was really aware of supporting and there was a real popularity toward that kind of poetry. And you see that I think, now in lots of different ways. But someone like Amanda Gorman I think furthers that and makes it more visible.
James Bennett II Harlem is one place. It's one neighborhood in one borough and one city. The Harlem Renaissance, though, it's huge. And so I'm curious to know, like, how does Harlem as an idea, relate to the black diaspora globally?
Kevin Young Well, I think Harlem is almost like a nation. You know, it isn't just one place. And the Harlem Renaissance, of course, occurs in many places, which is something I'm writing about now in some nonfiction I'm doing. But, you know, it occurs in Paris, it occurs in different ways in Chicago, in D.C., you know, in Florida, which is where Zora Neale Hurston is from and James Weldon Johnson. So there's a lot of places that the Harlem Renaissance occurs, and we call it that as a kind of shorthand. But I also think it's Harlem's important because it's a place people move to. It's a place people...it’s a crossroads. And so many of the writers we think of as Harlem Renaissance writers, they may have lived in Harlem a short time, but they did at some time come through there. So that's part of the important aspect of Harlem.
James Bennett II So tonight, you're going to be reading, if I'm correct, “Eddie Priest's Barbershop & Notary”. Is this the same Eddie Priest's barbershop in Cambridge?
Kevin Young I'll never tell. I mean, that's…I mean, what do you mean? You can't ask a poet where...[laughs] It's a pretty good name, I'll tell you that. And I have lived in Cambridge, but beyond that, I can't say.
James Bennett II I totally respect that [laughs]. I think, you should just know, when I was looking at the text of the poem and I typed it in, the first thing that came before anything else was like, "Are you trying to go here?" And I'm like, "What, no, I was trying to find the poem". Okay, we can leave it on, we can leave it on the table. But I wanted to ask you this February 1st, and it's coming. What is, what does Black History Month—and I think, more importantly, what is the point of Black History Month?
Kevin Young I mean, Black History Month is a tradition. It's obviously a time, you know, some people joke it's the coldest and shortest month, you know, that's the one we got. But I also think it's a really important reflection on African American culture and the ways it continues to be at the heart of American culture. It thinks a lot about the ways that the culture is still occurring. And you know, what I think is fascinating about this moment is that African American culture, a place like the National Museum, which I run, is really central to that conversation. It's central to how we talk about what is Americanness and seeing it through an African American lens only enriches us all.
Kevin Young But I also think Black History Month has...forces us to go a little deeper. You know, I think sometimes we turn to thinking about, you know, firsts or notables. But I think there's something about the everyday that African American and black folks and Black History Month really make clear and that power is really there. And it's one of the things that I think people are exploring.
Kevin Young For instance, this year, people talking about health and wellness. You know, that impacts us all, especially during a global pandemic. How do we talk about health and wellness as African Americans and the ways that it is part of our everyday and not just as a reactive thing and not just, you know, I come from folks who did work in science and worked in medicine. That's really powerful and important to commemorate. But also how do we, every day, go about our lives and connect to each other and take care of each other, you know? And that wholeness, I think, is part of what always was there for Black History Month. It's about celebrating the whole of culture, the whole of a people, a whole of history. And I think that's really important.
James Bennett II Good poetry enacts and doesn't describe, doesn't see from afar. It's in the moment. Those are some of your words. And so when I heard those, I wondered to myself how the poet today responsibly interacts with the past in a way that's not purely observational. How does one go about doing that?
Kevin Young Well, I think, you know, reading and living are part of it. You know, you have to engage your subjects, and some of those subjects are right in your backyard. You know, I think that's the first place to go. For me, I really connected with poetry when I realized that poetry wasn't something far out in the atmosphere, but it was the mud and the dirt. It was like everyday stuff. And in my case, that was the red dirt of Louisiana, you know, and the ways that my parents were both from there in different parts of Louisiana, northern and southern, you know, carry that with us. And we carried it wherever we went.
Kevin Young And so that aspect of poetry is true too, is poetry is a kind of homeland. And you have to, you inhabit it. And one of the beautiful things about it is if you memorize a poem, it lives in you. You know, it's part of your body. And you asked me about this poem “Eddie Priest's Barbershop & Notary”, I think that's one of the first poems I ever memorized of myself, my own. And that was really strange to reinhabit it. You know, it was X years ago, many decades ago now, but it still is in there. And I think that poetry is power. That's what I mean by enacting it is it's something that you don't just imagine in some out there way, but you live and embody and carry with you.
James Bennett II When you talk to us, "us" being the press, media, journalists, “us” being black folks, is there something that you wish we asked you more often that we don't ask you?
Kevin Young I'm not sure I do. I mean, I think that, you know, for me, I'm just always interested in the ways that everyday folks experience history. And I think some of the ways they do that is through poetry. Poetry helps us reflect. It helps us realize that history isn't out there in large movements that have nothing to do with us as everyday people. Poetry distills those lyrical, everyday moments and heightens them and helps us understand that someone like Emmett Till or someone like his mother, Mamie Til Mobley, are witnesses and change agents, even in Till's case, without necessarily even knowing it.
Kevin Young And so that force of history that resides in us all, I think is really important. And that's what I, I don't know if that's something I want asked or that's something I want to convey, is the ways that everyday people make change and they make history and they make art. They make all of this possible.
Kevin Young And the kinds of song that we're celebrating tonight, the kinds of poetry that are also being celebrated are everyday things everyone can sing, you know, not anyone can sing as well as the people we're going to hear tonight. But everyone can sing in a different way. And I think same thing with poetry. Everyone can connect to poetry. And you don't have to be a poet to do it. Or an expert. History is for us all. And one of my goals, whether it's through poetry or doing work in museums or my other work, is to let people hold history in their hands.
James Bennett II Cool, thank you. That's all the questions that I have for you. I really appreciate all of this and good luck tonight and thank you for being here man.
Kevin Young Thanks.
Part Two — "Victory Stride: The Orchestral Legacy of the Harlem Renaissance"
New World Symphony
Thomas Wilkins, conductor
Chad Goodman, conductor
William DAWSON - Negro Folk Symphony: III. O Le’ Me Shine, Shine Like a Morning Star!
William GRANT STILL - Symphony No. 4, “Autochthonous”
William GRANT STILL - Patterns for Orchestra
Florence PRICE - Symphony No. 1 in E minor: III. Juba Dance
James PRICE JOHNSON - Victory Stride
Edward Kennedy "Duke" ELLINGTON - Harlem
Hear an interview about this concert with conductor Thomas Wilkins.
James Bennett II It's not a secret that you wanted to be a conductor from a very, very young age. I believe, you know, I forget where it was, but you have this story about listening, being like on a trip and you had seen or heard the national anthem being played and you saw the conductor flourish and bring this music to life. With that in mind, what does it feel like to be able to conduct, quite frankly, non-white male composers?
Thomas Wilkins You know, for me it was a process because like all of us in the classical music world, we were trained in the Western European tradition and we live in the world of Beethoven and Brahms and Haydn and Mozart and Tchaikovsky. And when I first came to this music, it was on events like MLK concerts and Black History Month concerts, you know, and there was this sense, fair or unfair, real or unreal, that we were just sort of pandering for a day to these composers. And it was homey music. It wasn't music that was written in that tradition.
Thomas Wilkins And at first I thought, why? But then as I started to live life and got older, I realized that for me, as I was getting comfortable in my own skin, I realized that these guys were comfortable in their own skin. And what's interesting about that is Mahler didn't run away from his Jewishness in his compositional process. You hear klezmer in Mahler's music. You know, Dvořák didn't run away from his Czech heritage. You hear his heritage in his music. Why we expected these African American composers to disregard their heritage was not only unfair, but it didn't make any sense. And so now when I come to this music, I come to it as a grown up that's lived life and I'm comfortable in my own skin, and I understand that this music actually means something and it means something very specific.
James Bennett II I'm looking at the program right now. We have Dawson, we have Still, there's Florence Price, you know, there's Duke Ellington, there's some of the others and some of those composers disregarding, I guess, Duke and to an extent, you know, Johnson are so underperformed. Does that mean as a conductor for you that their music is a little bit more challenging because it's not as familiar? Now I'm not a conductor, but I would imagine if something as ubiquitous as Beethoven Five is put in front of you, it's like, oh, I know how this music sounds and how it goes and what the intent is, but you know, you suddenly get Florence Price Symphony, you know, One or Three or what have you. What is it? What's that challenge like? What's going on in your head?
Thomas Wilkins I know that when I rehearse this music now with orchestras that haven't seen it before, you have to tell them what world they're entering, and you have to use descriptive words to say what this particular musical gesture is my grandmother saying, "Lord have mercy", or whatever it is. It's not that it's more challenging, but to your point, it's never been an accepted regular part of the Canon.
Thomas Wilkins And that's why it's such a surprise to people, because they didn't play this music in graduate school. They played Beethoven in graduate school, but they didn't play Dawson. And to be honest, a lot of this now is post-George Floyd and organizations are waking up to understand that we've left too many people behind for far too long and we have some catching up to do. And so now people are seeing this music on a regular basis and orchestras are programing this music intentionally. And for me the hope is they won't have to do that going forward, that now Dawson will be a part of the canon as opposed to just being a piece that we played on what I call “Negro Night at the Symphony” as a joke.
Thomas Wilkins The unfamiliarity is a challenge. It's not necessarily technically challenging, although there are many pieces in this repertoire that are technically challenging. And you mentioned Duke Ellington, yet Duke Ellington was played, but not his orchestral music. I just did a complete Duke Ellington mini-festival in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, and we went through a whole bunch of orchestral repertoire that people either hadn't heard before or hadn't heard in a very long time, and certainly hadn't heard it in the voice of the orchestra.
James Bennett II Yeah, there's actually two threads I want to dive in there, but first I just wanted to say I like how you said a lot of this was in, you know, a response, right to, you know, the aftermath of George Floyd's murder and the protests. And, you know, I think a lot of organizations like to say that they're being proactive by, you know, programming with this intentionality. But really, that's reactive, because if that didn't happen, you know, who knows if we would be having this conversation right now. I don't know. And it's a bit bittersweet that it kind of took the death of a human being to be seen to be believed then that being the oh, maybe we should try something. What do you think about that?
Thomas Wilkins No, I think I think you're spot on. It is in that indeed reactive, but at least the word active is in there, and that no one now is just going to brush this aside as a temporary thing that we need to take care of right now. They get it. And, you know, a good friend of mine said his mother used to always say, you know, "In the end, things always turn out right, and if they're not right, and it's been a long time, we're not at the end". And so I say, okay, let's acknowledge more than one truth at the same time. The one truth is that it took us way too long to get here. The other truth, though, is that we're here, and let's make the best use of it.
James Bennett II I want to turn and talk about some of the music itself, if that's cool. I know that you had mentioned in the re-engraving of some of, you know, Duke's, you know, more orchestral work. I know that this Johnson that you're going to be conducting, Victory Stride, which is, you know, what the program is named after, that is an orchestral work I know that Johnson wanted to rehearse the music but he was discouraged from that in a way, right?
Thomas Wilkins Yeah. And I would want to say that other people were also discouraged, but it didn't squelch the creative fire that still lived within them. And to be fair, no composer that I know would write if they didn't think their music wasn't going to be played or heard. And yet there were quite a few composers who wrote in the midst of struggle and turmoil, and thank goodness that they did, because now we can get our hands on it.
James Bennett II What would you say to people that are looking at this program before it even begins, they're running down and they get to, "Oh, is that James P. Johnson? Is that Duke Ellington? Are we in the jazz section of the program?" How do you respond to that? Because this is Duke and Johnson writing in an explicitly orchestral setting, yet at the same time we're like, “Oh, genre and boundaries don't matter”. What do you say to that? Like, that people are, you know, "Oh it's the jazz, yeah, Negro night. It's the jazz part. Cool."
Thomas Wilkins A friend of mine said he was playing a concerto. He's a jazz player. James Carter is his name, and he was playing a concerto for saxophones and orchestra that has kind of jazzy moments in it. It was also on a program where we were doing Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, and we did a little talk back after the concert and, you know, all the jazzers came out of the woodwork, you know, to see James. And so one of the questions from one of them to James was, "So man, um, so what was it like playing your piece, man, on the same program with Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony?", and without dropping a beat, James said, "What are you talking about?" He says, "I was just jazzed about my pieces and what? Tchaikovsky. What about my piece?", he says. "So many people go to the parade and all they do is wait for the Miss America float. I want to see the whole parade". And in a sense, this program is the whole parade. That's the first thing.
Thomas Wilkins But the second thing is, almost to your point, I'm not a labels guy. I mean, I think Duke Ellington said there's only two kinds of music, good music and the other kind. When you start to add labels just for the purpose of categorization, you end up with separation as well. And in this instance, yes, Duke Ellington's on this program. And yes, Duke Ellington was famously known as a jazz artist. And yes, this music sounds like Duke Ellington wrote it because there's jazz all over it. But to Duke, it was just music that just happened to be his vocabulary. This is Johnson's vocabulary. William Grant Still had a whole different category, and yet there's still a little swing sometimes in William Grant Still, because we're talking about people being comfortable in their own skin.
Thomas Wilkins I'm doing a piece next season somewhere that's all about, quote unquote, "celestial bodies", right? So we're doing the Holst Planets, but we're also doing very serious classical music by an African-American composer by the name of James Lee III, it's called Sukkot Through Orion's Nebula. And in the middle is Duke Ellington's A New World A-Comin'. I didn't think twice about doing A New World A-Comin' on basically a program with two other quote unquote, "classical oriented" pieces. This is just the theme of the program, and I think this is what works. I don't know that I would have been brave enough to do that early in my career. Now I don't care [laughs].
James Bennett II The opening piece is an excerpt from Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony. Can you tell me about some of the spirituals and some of the vernacular music that he is putting into this symphony? What's going on there?
Thomas Wilkins You know, he was a writer of spirituals, and a famous one I can't remember now all of a sudden, Oh, Ezekiel Saw the Wheel, right? That language seeps into this music probably almost by default, you could say. But the other thing is that this piece, the entire symphony, for example, is specifically his attempt to recreate the life and the culture that Africans were missing once they were forcefully removed from their homeland.
Thomas Wilkins And so he's not trying to do any quoting. He's just trying to give us a sense of who they were, and now who they are away from Africa. You know, there were Africans who came to America who became spiritual people because they believed that it's got to be better later. And so for me, it just seemed natural that it would find its way into this music and the title O Le' Me Shine, Shine Like a Morning Star!, I mean, that's as much aspirational as it is inspirational.
James Bennett II Autochthonous is a mighty word. I don't think I've ever said it out loud before I started even thinking about this program. I don't think I...[laughs]
Thomas Wilkins I need some like, autochthonous shrimp tonight, you know?
James Bennett II Yeah, no...[laughing]. So, you know, it's William Grant Still Symphony, four movements. Fourth Symphony. I want to ask you, as the conductor of this piece, what does autochthonous mean and how does that apply to this music?
Thomas Wilkins The easy answer is that it means of its original origin, basically. And I used to say that for me, by extension, autochthonous also meant a self-portrait, as it were. But it turns out that what he was basically saying is that it's what I said to somebody yesterday. At the end of the day, we hope to discover that there's more about us that's alike than there is that's different. And so he was really speaking of the originality of humankind, period, not just in African-Americans original origins, even though, again, his lifeblood is into this work. And so we know it was written by him. I mean, when we hear it, we know it was written by him, but he had greater hopes for what the world would be like. It was music based on the promise of what we can be as a human society.
James Bennett II Florence Price, Symphony One. What is a Juba dance? It's the third movement, you know, if you're not used to, if you'd, rather I would say if you are used to only seeing symphonies by, you know, who did you say of Beethoven and Brahms and... Third movement, oh that's a scherzo. Well, not here. This is a Juba Dance, but it's still a dance, right? It's still like a third movement of a symphony. It's still "Boom!", it's up there. What's the Juba dance? What's going on?
Thomas Wilkins I'm glad you said that, because, yeah, the third movements were typically either a minuet or, in the original symphonic form, and then Beethoven took the minuet and sped it up and turned it into a scherzo. And then, you know, everybody did after that because everybody was freaked out by Beethoven. But a Juba dance is a communal dance done by men, pretty much slaves. There's two or three men in the middle and then a circle of men around them. And what happens is the circle of men on the outside, they do a Juba dance in a counterclockwise, a clockwise motion.
Thomas Wilkins Now, I can't remember which direction it is, but then they yell out some dance moves basically to the guys in the middle, and then the guys in the middle have to do that dance. And then all of a sudden when that dance is over, then they go back to their own outside, ring, Juba dance, and then they call in another dances...Call and response is not the best way to describe it. But what happens is you end up hearing the same music over and over again because that Juba dance just keeps circling around on itself and what happens in the middle happens in the middle.
James Bennett II I've long thought about access. I've thought about what it means to program work by composers that aren't the, quote unquote, "white heavy hitters". But I've also thought about generational wealth. I think about getting what's due you, and when it comes to composers like Still and Price and Dawson and Johnson and Ellington, I would imagine it will be hard to find some of those scores or some of those parts for musicians. And, like, some of this music is so recent. Patterns, that's from 1960. You just talked about William Grant Still's Fourth Symphony, Autochthonous, that's 1947. These are not in the public domain in the way that Mozart's Requiem is, right? How do we square, "Let's program more black artists, let's program, you know...", and showcase the liveliness of black art when there's the financial, there's the intellectual property world to navigate. What do we do?
Thomas Wilkins I love how you asked me that question, as if I have the answer. I think we just do. I think we just keep doing and as I said earlier, what I want, what I dream for is for this music to just become a part of the Canon, the regular Canon, and no one even thinks about it again. I had a reporter, he took note of a program I was doing in Boston, and he said, "Wow, every composer on here is an African-American".
Thomas Wilkins And I don't know what I said as an answer. But later I thought to myself, what I should have said was, you know, that normally every composer on a program is actually white. And so why is this odd? Right? But of course, I didn't think of it 'til later. But that's the issue. We shouldn't ever look at a program like this and think, huh, every composer is black on here. What do you know? As if that's some sort of oddity. Well, it is an oddity right now, but it doesn't have to be going forward.
“I Dream a World: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond” is a two-part festival and celebration of music and poetry from, and inspired by, the explosion of artistic expression emanating outwards from 1920s New York. With a program curated by Dr. Tammy Kernodle of Miami University of Ohio and New World Symphony Artistic Director Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas, “I Dream A World,” features a kaleidoscopic view of African-American sound.
Guest Kevin Young, The New Yorker poetry editor and Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, pairs poetry by figures such as Langston Hughes and Pauli Murray with choral arrangements and small combo performances by The Ambassador Chorale of Florida Memorial University and New World Symphony Fellows.
And conductor Thomas Wilkins leads the fellows in “Victory Stride: The Orchestral Legacy of the Harlem Renaissance”, featuring colorful orchestral expressions by composers including Duke Ellington, Florence Price, and William Grant Still.
Program Notes from the New World Symphony: