Communities of Color in Classical Music: SMCO’s Season Opener

by Maggie Molloy

The United States is a melting pot of cultures and musical identities made richer by communities of color—yet even in the 21st century, classical music programs predominantly feature white male composers.

The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra has dedicated their 2017-2018 season to celebrating diversity and honoring voices that have been too often marginalized—or worse, silenced—throughout the classical music tradition.

The season, titled “Voices of Courage,” kicks off this Wednesday and Sunday with a collaborative concert that weaves together contemporary music and poetry in a powerful statement of unity. The program examines the search for an American musical identity, exploring the lasting influence of communities of color in classical music and addressing issues of representation on concert programs. Seattle’s first Civic Poet, Claudia Castro Luna, joins the orchestra to read her own original poetry as well as the prose of Federico García Lorca.

The evening begins with a bang: Jessie Montgomery’s urgent and innovative Banner, which combines classical strings with elements from African-American spirituals and anthems of the U.S., Mexico, and Puerto Rico. It’s followed by the impossibly gorgeous, elegiac Lyric for Strings by George Walker, the first African-American composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas follows with the mariachi textures and driving rhythms of with his heroic Homenaje a Federico García Lorca. He composed the piece in 1936 in honor of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, who was murdered by fascist militia forces. Aaron Copland’s Music for the Theatre evokes the playful jazz solos, brassy fanfares, and lively cabaret culture of the Roaring Twenties, and Scott Joplin’s infectious Maple Leaf Rag rounds out the program.

We talked with SMCO Music Director Geoffrey Larson to learn more about the music and the people behind this week’s program:

Second Inversion: What inspired the theme of this season, “Voices of Courage”?

Geoffrey Larson: Classical music has never existed in a vacuum, and I believe that in times like these our art form becomes more relevant than ever. The political and social climate in our country today contributed significantly to the programming direction of SMCO’s current season, which features musical voices typically marginalized throughout the history of classical music, including composers of color, women, and immigrants. Copland, Barber, Bernstein, and Tchaikovsky were also part of a minority with respect to their sexual orientation, and experienced forms of persecution because of it.

Additionally, as SMCO strives to fulfill our mission of serving the entire Seattle community, we as an organization believe that it is important that our programming reflects the diversity of cultures that make this city whole. We will continue to feature music of women and people of color, and strive to ensure they are represented onstage as well.

SI: How did you choose the repertoire for this season opener?

GL: SMCO’s October 11 and 15 program showcases just some of the powerful cross-cultural influences at work in the classical music world. When I set about programming a season, I make a large list of pieces that I love and would like to perform, and I have been looking forward to programming all of these works for some time. The Montgomery is an intensely powerful statement, and is very cleverly put together; George Walker poured his heart into the Lyric for Strings, it’s just so beautiful and personal; the Revueltas uses a sort of Mexican village band orchestration, achieves some really jaw-dropping sounds, and uses Latin-American rhythms in such cool ways; the Copland is a total blast to perform with all its swinging jazz elements and brassy fanfares. Pianist Amanda Harris will also perform a solo work by Scott Joplin.

It is important that music of women and composers of color appear on programs such as this, as they are chronically under-represented on classical music programs, but it’s important to remember that these are stunning, incredible pieces of music first and foremost. The Copland falls at the end of the program, synthesizing the influences of musical forms earlier on the program that come from communities of color.  

SI: What makes this concert different from your average classical music performance?

GL: SMCO is always striving to present music in context, and I believe that pairing poetry with the music of this program will not only add beauty but will add a powerful real-world relevance as well. Claudia Castro Luna will read her own work as a response to Jessie Montgomery’s Banner, which is possibly the most timely work on the program: it has a section that mimics the Pledge of Allegiance and quotes African American spirituals, the Mexican and Puerto Rican Anthems, and other melodies all mixed together with a transformation of the U.S. National Anthem.

Claudia will also read the prose of Federico Garcia Lorca between each movement of the work that was inspired by his writing, the Homenaje a Federico Garcia Lorca by Silvestre Revueltas. We also strive to present music in a more relaxed and welcoming setting, removing the stereotypical stuffiness of classical music shows that I think is seen as a barrier to a lot of first-time listeners.

SI: How did the collaboration with Claudia Castro Luna come about, and how do the poems relate to the music?

GL: I have admired Claudia’s work as our first Civic Poet, especially her Seattle Poetic Grid, which tells the personal story of the different neighborhoods of the city through the voices of the people who live there.

Every person who lives in this city and in this country has a connection to it and all the people who call it home; everyone deserves respect and a voice. This huge variety of heritage and experience is part of our identity as a nation, and our musical identity reflects it. Claudia was enthusiastic about being a part of this program because she is passionate about its themes: the respect and empowerment of marginalized voices, and celebration of the influence of racial and cultural minorities.


SMCO’s Music, Poetry, and the Influence of Communities of Color is this Wednesday, Oct. 11 at 7:30pm at Fremont Abbey and Sunday, Oct. 15 at 2pm at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

From Concert Hall to Capitol Hill Nightclub: Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra’s SPARK

by Maggie Molloy

When it comes to classical music, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra likes to think outside the concert hall. This Saturday, Second Inversion is thrilled to sponsor the launch of SMCO’s new SPARK performance series: an immersive concert experience that presents classical music old and new in nightclubs and other unexpected venues.

“It’s every musician’s dream for their friends who have no experience with classical music to enjoy this incredible art form as much as we do,” said Geoffrey Larson, Music Director of SMCO. “I wanted to provide a space to enjoy classical music without any rules, real or perceived: where audience members could have a drink, get up and dance, applaud and scream and shout whenever they want. I wanted to show how music of the classical genre can be relevant to our lives today—whether it was composed 300 years ago or three days ago.”

The series launch, which takes place amid the neon lights of the Fred Wildlife Refuge on Capitol Hill, features music from both eras. The concert unfolds as a fully-produced, continuous musical experience that oscillates between guest artist DJ Suttikeeree’s electronic dance music sets and SMCO’s electrifying classical music performances.

Under Geoffrey Larson’s baton, SMCO pairs a Vivaldi chamber concerto with Max Richter’s modern recomposition of the Baroque master’s famous Four Seasons. The centerpiece of the evening is Mason Bates’ infectious and aptly-titled Rise of Exotic Computing for sinfonietta and laptop, and a world premiere of a new work for horns and orchestra by William Rowe—co-commissioned and performed by SMCO and the Skylark Quartet—rounds out the program. Electronic interludes from DJ Suttikeeree provide both dynamic contrasts and fluid connections between the evening’s wide-ranging works.

“Suttikeeree will be spinning his own brand of electro-hop, mixing in fragments of the orchestral music our audience will hear onstage and providing a heartbeat that ties together the different genres throughout the night,” Larson said.

The first of its kind in Seattle, the SPARK series was created with the guidance of composer and producer Gabriel Prokofiev, whose orchestral arrangement of Sir Mixalot’s “Baby Got Back” premiered to viral success with the Seattle Symphony in 2014. The grandson of legendary Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, Gabriel is also the founder of the Nonclassical record label and Club Night series based in London.

“Gabriel was extremely helpful in helping me strategize three things: what role the DJ should play in the event, how to structure the general ‘flow’ of the evening, and (to a lesser extent) what sort of music we should consider performing,” Larson said. “Through trial and error, Gabriel has come up with a pretty strong and unique concept for the flow of the larger Nonclassical Club Night events, and this sort of timing has been adapted into our plans for the SPARK series.”

Like Nonclassical Club Nights, the SPARK series aims to create immersive, cross-disciplinary performances that redefine the rules of classical chamber music, breaking away from the constraints of the traditional concert hall and sparking new and inspiring collaborations.


The SPARK series launch is this Saturday, May 20 at 8pm at the Fred Wildlife Refuge on Capitol Hill. Click here for tickets and more information.

Second Inversion’s Top 5 Moments of 2015

2015 has been a huge year for us! Besides filling the 24/7 stream with new music and insights, we kept busy out in the community, on the blog, and making videos! This is the final post in a series of “Top 5 of 2015” lists (check out our Top 5 Videos and Top 5 Albums) before we plunge into 2016.  Here are our top 5 moments/events/milestones/projects/good times:

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#5: John Cage Diary Series

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Armed with high-quality headphones and book in hand, over the course of eight weeks, Second Inversion’s Maggie Molloy listened through each of the eight parts of Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)recently published by Siglio Press, and created her own personal diary tracking the experience.

She gracefully navigated through the zigzagging maze that is Cage’s musical mind and shed light on some fascinating aspects of Cage’s life: his love of mushrooms, cats, anechoic chambers, technology (it’s arguable to say Cage may have predicted the internet), dance, and so much more.  Dive in from the beginning and let her guide you through this incredible series! Stay tuned for more great creative features and clever wit from Maggie M. in 2016!


#4: Live Broadcasts

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In 2015 we presented SEVEN live streaming broadcast concerts from Town Hall Seattle and Meany Hall, including Third Coast Percussion, Catalyst Quartet, Deviant Septet, SYSO Alums and Mentors, Johnny Gandlesman, ETHEL and Robert Mirabal, Ensemble Variances with Lisa Bielawa! These broadcasts allowed us to connect with concert-goers in the community while reaching audiences nation and world-wide on our 24/7 stream! Many of them are also available on our live concerts on-demand page Stay tuned for plenty more in 2016.


#3: Music Videos (& a New Music USA Grant)

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We’re grateful for all of the foundation support we’ve received for Second Inversion this year! Our grant from New Music USA was particularly exciting because it to helped fund our music videos. Our video stars include Joshua Roman, Turtle Island String Quartet, Jherek Bischoff, Ashley Bathgate, Danish String Quartet, musicians from OneBeat, Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz, and so many more. It’s been a wildly fun journey connecting with artists who are passionate about sharing new music with audiences. We’re incredibly grateful for the time they donated to be a part of this project! Check out the complete video collection on our video page.


#2: Northwest Folklife Festival

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In 2015 we had our first Northwest Folklife Showcase – really, our first public performance of any kind! The Passenger String Quartet and Seattle Cello eXperiment performed for an absolutely packed Center Theatre. It was an amazing opportunity for us to contribute to Folklife’s diverse music and cultural offerings and to connect with new audiences. Some showed up expecting a more traditional “classical” concert and instead were able to Rethink Classical. Needless to say, we’ll be back for a 2nd showcase in 2016!


#1: Joshua Roman named Artistic Advisor

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In March of 2015, Second Inversion brought Joshua Roman on board as the Artistic Advisor! Joshua has helped us “Rethink Classical” with our Seattle community and our national and global audiences by posting to our blog, introducing music on our 24/7 stream, and collaborating on new ideas and initiatives. Stay tuned for more from Joshua in 2016!

LIVE BROADCAST: Ensemble Variances w/ Lisa Bielawa

What’s better than contemporary classical music on Second Inversion’s 24/7 stream?Ensemble-Variances10cMichel-Pellaz

LIVE contemporary classical music from Town Hall Seattle, straight to your living room, kitchen, mobile headphones, anywhere with an internet connection.

Tonight, tune in at 7:30pm PT for Ensemble Variances with Lisa Bielawa for Cri Selon Cri. This production is the brainchild of France’s Thierry Pécou and the United States’ Lisa Bielawa — a work which brings together their compositions, performance, and, quite literally, their cries of pain. This tour, sponsored in part by the French government, demonstrates the power of music to bring people closer.  In addition to works by Bielawa and Pécou, John Zorn’s music will make an appearance on the program.

Second Inversion host Geoffrey Larson and Artistic Advisor Joshua Roman will bring you commentary from the stage and behind the scenes throughout this riveting program. Stream online through your computer or better yet, download our mobile app and stream it on-the-go!IMG_5068

Staff & Community Picks: August 13

A weekly rundown of the music our staff and listeners are loving lately! Are you interested in contributing some thoughts on your favorite new music albums? Drop us a line!


Joshua Roman on Golijov’s Ayre:

71kEKXXvAAL._SX522_This is an amazing piece that I first stumbled upon several years ago and basically put on repeat.  It’s a unique set-up where you have things like a hyper-accordion, which is an invention by the player himself, Michael Ward-Bergeman.  He basically takes two inputs and puts them on either side of the accordion and creates this stereo effect with a machine that mixes them together to create the “hyper effect.” It’s kind of like an accordion on steroids and produces a lot of intense sounds. Golijov uses this to great effect to take you through different modes of musical communication.  It’s not stuck in style; it really goes all over the place, but all fits together very well and flows very naturally.  There are moments that are very touching and movements where you’ll think, “What the hell is going on?” but in a really great way.  It’s extremely exciting! Dawn Upshaw gives an incredible performance and allows herself to go to places that are just primal in nature.



Jill Kimball on David Leisner’s Facts of Life

911XPzhwHeL._SL1417_Addiction. Heartbreak.  Disappointment. We’d like to brush all these things under a rug, but sometimes they’re the facts of life. Composer David del Tredici chose to place his negative life experiences at the forefront of his four-movement solo guitar work, “Facts of Life.” It’s just one of three pieces on an album featuring the virtuosic guitarist David Leisner. The piece transitions effortlessly from tango to fugue to some fantastically frenetic strumming. Another beautifully chaotic piece on the album is Osvaldo Golijov’s “Fish Tale,” a chamber piece about a sea creature who takes a trippy, Alice in Wonderland-like journey through the water. 



Geoffrey Larson on Ravi Shankar’s Symphony

854990001604This piece is something totally different: an orchestral work that is part symphony, part sitar concerto. Both a sitar master and long-time classical composer and collaborator, the late Ravi Shankar fashioned a four-movement work that brings Hindustani music to the Western orchestral ensemble. Pounding raga-like rhythms and dance figures can be found throughout, augmented by actual vocalizations by the LPO players in the final movement. The composer’s daughter, sitar virtuoso Anoushka Shankar shines in this live performance recording. Common practice period not spicy enough? These unique symphonic flavors might do the trick.