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.