F-M Symphony celebrates Black female composers in ‘Hear Our Voices Ring’ Masterworks Concert
The F-M Symphony Orchestra will kick off its season Saturday, Sept. 24, with “Hear Our Voices Ring,” a performance highlighting the works of three Black female composers.
The Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra’s 2022-23 Masterworks Concert Series is all about the number five.
“It’s a Five Star Season” features five favorite symphony No. 5s created by five composers, performed by five soloists. But the first of the five, “Hear Our Voices Ring,” which debuts Saturday, Sept. 25, at North Dakota State University's Festival Concert Hall, highlights the works of three Black female composers.
It is the first time the symphony has performed works by living Black female composers. The symphony will hold two performances, one at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday.
Narrated by Executive Director of Jeremiah Project Fargo, speaker and Burundi native Laetitia Mizero Hellerud, “Hear Our Voices Ring” is a culmination of classical music and the contemporary Black female experience, one that Hellerud hopes will shed light on issues of our time.
“How does this music fit into my vision? As a new American, I think this concert humanizes and personalizes not always fitting in and makes it temporal,” Hellerud said. “And typically, it’s mostly dead white men, and so this is very timely and timeless with the idea of unity and so American in however we can interpret that. There's just so much that can be explored.”
The performance includes “Banner,” by contemporary black composer Jessie Montgomery, “Umoja,” by Valerie Coleman and “The Shadow of Ethiopia in America,” by the pioneering black female composer Florence Price. Tying it together is a performance of “Symphony No. 5,” by Antonin Dvorak, who was heavily influenced by African-American composer Harry T. Burleigh.
Pairing the works of female Black composers with Dvorak may not seem on the surface to be an obvious choice. However, FMSO Interim Executive Director Linda Boyd, said Dvorak’s music was deeply influenced by his experiences traveling in America and learning about American folk music. And at the end of the day, Boyd said, each artist is using their music to express universal truths about the human condition.
“There is that connecting thread through all the works we’re doing this year, and each composer is taking their personal experience and translating it into a work of symphonic music, and I just love the fact that we’re expanding what we consider to be classical music,” Boyd said.
A 45-minute pre-concert Q&A session led by FMSO Music Director Christopher Zimmerman will give a chance for concertgoers to ask questions about the pieces and continue the conversation about the inclusion of diverse voices in all aspects of art, including the concert hall. This lecture is open to all ticketholders and is held in Beckwith Recital Hall, which adjoins Festival Concert Hall.
“This is great because Christopher will go over what to listen for in particular pieces, and Laetitia will probably be there to discuss her own experience as a Black immigrant living in the area,” Boyd said. “It’s just a really informal way to talk about what’s going on in the concert hall and get people more comfortable with the pieces they’re about to witness live.”
'Banner' by Jessie Montgomery
FM Symphony will play “Banner,” a piece by emerging Black composer Jessie Montgomery who examines the National Anthem from the lens of the African-American experience.
“Montgomery really struggled with commissioning this piece,” Boyd said. “And like a lot of experiences with the sentiment of whether it’s our National Anthem or the pledge, or the promise of America, and liberty and justice for all. Well, all better mean all. And so Montgomery really drew on her experience of the hope of this country and of what we’re still aiming for.”
'Umoja' by Valerie Coleman
“Umoja” means “Unity” in Swahili, and is one of the signature compositions of flutist, chamber music innovator and composer Valerie Coleman. The Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned and premiered the symphonic version in 2019—the first classical work by a living African-American woman that the orchestra had ever performed—and we are thrilled to bring it to our audiences.
'The Shadow of Ethiopia in America' by Florence Price
The music of Florence Price (1887-1953), an African-American composer, pianist and teacher, received renewed attention when many of her works were discovered in her abandoned summer home in 2009. While she was educated at New England Conservatory of Music, was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer and the first to have a composition played by a major symphony orchestra, her music did not receive mainstream attention and performance until relatively recently. “Ethiopia’s Shadow in America” was one of those compositions for orchestra discovered in 2009.
'Symphony No. 5' by Antonin Dvořák
As we celebrate composers who infuse their own musical heritage into classical music, Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) fits right in. He was one of the first Czech composers to receive worldwide recognition, known for his style that combined elements of humble folk music of his own region with classical orchestral music. His Symphony No. 5 is a colorful and exciting work that will conclude the concert with a dramatic finish.
“Composers started infusing their pieces with music from their homeland a long time ago,” Boyd said. “Even Brahms did some gypsy-type music. Sometimes classical music fans have their favorites, and it used to be represented that there’s this core repertoire and that’s the way it is. And orchestras are really enjoying performing new music by living composers, and that’s what we’re doing with this Masterworks series.”
Overall, FMSO is looking forward to all five Masterworks concerts this year, though “Hear Our Voices Ring” is likely the most intentionally prescient and thoughtful from a larger political and cultural standpoint, which is something Boyd and her staff are incredibly excited about.
“This is what I like to think of as uniquely American,” Boyd said. “We are so much richer for all those voices in the national culture, and then to weave that through Laetitia’s experience as a new American and how that was shaped by her cultural experiences as well.”
For tickets and more details, visit fmsymphony.org or call 701-478-3676.
Urban Overture group is now UpTEMPO
UpTEMPO (formerly Urban Overture) is a membership-based group offering special events and discounted concert tickets for people in their 20s and 30s who are interested in an informal concert experience and networking with their peers.
The group will host UpTEMPO-only: Masterworks Opening Night Champagne Pre-party from 6 to 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24, at the Soiree Tea Room on 12th Avenue (across the street from the concert hall).
For information about membership and tickets, visit fmsymphony.org .
This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit theartspartnership.net.