Composer Valerie Coleman imagines new worlds in music

Valerie Coleman has heard the Philadelphia perform her Seven O’Clock Shout at Carnegie Hall — an anthem inspired by the tireless frontline workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

She has heard the Philadelphia Orchestra and soprano Angel Blue perform the world premiere of her own new song cycle to words by Philadelphia poet Sonia Sanchez, and alongside it Florence Price’s First Symphony, invoking her life as a Black woman raised in the Post-Civil War South in American folk music, spirituals, and church hymns.

And this weekend, Coleman will hear the premiere of one of her newest works on a bright afternoon in the Berkshires, in a place she knew 20 years ago, in a celebration of a musician she deeply admires.

Acclaimed composer and flutist Valerie Coleman will premiere her new work Ashé at BUTI. Press photo courtesy of the artist
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Acclaimed composer and flutist Valerie Coleman will premiere her new work Ashé at BUTI. Press photo courtesy of the artist

The Boston University Tanglewood Institute’s Young Artists Showcase will celebrate Ann Hobson Pilot, former Principal Harpist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Director of the BUTI Young Artists Harp Program 2002 to 2021 — in a program of new music.

BUTI commissioned Ashé as a new work to close the program at the end of the summer, Coleman said. She is teaching with BUTI this summer as an instructor in composition, and she has launched a new woodwind quintet. She has written this work to encompass all that the students have found here and held close.

“They have grown memories,” she said, “and the friendships, the musical moments that have transformed them, all of those great memories are encapsulated into this one closing piece. … Being here is transformative. I was here for the flute seminar (in 1989), and it was the best two weeks of my young life.”

She feels a growing energy in young musicians and composers, she said, and a sense of opportunities for them. Composers have a responsibility to record the times, and a new generation are making their voices heard.

Audiences are changing, she said, and some creative places recognize the change — she sees an interest in attracting next generations, millennials and Gen Z, as concert venues are asking how to bring new listeners into concerts now.

‘I think the modern artistic director of orchestras are looking at innovative ways of engagement, and a lot of that also has to do with recognizing the history of music, American music.’ — Valerie Coleman

“I think the modern artistic director of orchestras are looking at innovative ways of engagement,” she said. “And a lot of that also has to do with recognizing the history of music, American music, and what does that mean.”

She hears musicians, composers and orchestras entering into a new conversation, broadening an understanding of what orchestral music and chamber music and choral music can be.

That conversation can rise when a program like this one offers Rosephanye Powell’s contemporary choral setting of Non Nobis Domine, Not to us God, a hymn centuries old — and Jessie Montgomery’s Strum, a string quintet drawing on American folk rhythms and the spirit of dance and movement.

And it can rise when concert halls recognize composers from the past century and more. She sees a resurgence of the music of Florence Price, one of the first Black women recognized as classical composers in America, in the mid-20th century. (The Boston Symphony Orchestra played Five Folk Songs at Counterpoint in 2019.)

“Thank goodness,” Coleman said, “because we’re learning in real time how brilliant she was. I was just listening to her violin concerto this morning and I was just absolutely blown away. I’ve heard all of her symphonies, but the violin concerto is truly special.”

Contemporary voices at Tanglewood

Even in the next two weeks, the Boston Symphony Orchestra will perform work from a diverse group of composers …

On July 21, a BSO co-commission, A Standing Witness, set the words of nationally acclaimed poet Rita Dove to the music of Richard Danielpour

On July 23, Andris Nelsos conducts soprano Latonia Moore and pianist Seong-Jin Cho in a program including William Grant Still’s In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy

On July 28, Grammy winning musician Rhiannon Giddens, new artistic director of the Silk Road Ensemble, will bring new commissions by Sandeep Das and Kaoru Watanabe and far more …

“And so Black composers of decades past are starting to get their due in such a beautiful way, and perhaps that’s all is needed to open the doors wide open is the chance to hear, the change to listen and the chance to curate this music to audiences.”

Many audiences may not know new music, she said, until a composer or a concert curates it for them. When a person or an organization that loves music says “trust us, you want to hear this piece,” the give listeners a new confidence, or introduce them to new sound.

‘And so Black composers of decades past are starting to get their due in such a beautiful way, and perhaps that’s all is needed to open the doors wide is the chance to hear …’ — Valerie Coleman

In the last few years, ensembles across the country including The Boston Symphony Orchestra have performed a greater body of work by contemporary BIPOC composers, women composers, contemporary voices.

“It may have taken social unrest to open that door,” Coleman said, “But quite frankly, now that door is blasted wide open by the merit and virtue of merit of the quality of compositions that have been written for such a long time, now finally seeing the light of day.

Acclaimed harpist Charles Overton will perform in tribute to Ann Hobson Pilot, longtime harpist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Press photo courtesy of the BSO
Charles Overton

Acclaimed harpist Charles Overton will perform in tribute to Ann Hobson Pilot, longtime harpist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Press photo courtesy of the BSO

“People are being blown away by what they’re hearing. It’s a very exciting time, and as a composer, for me, all of a sudden I have access to this music that I didn’t fully know about before. So I have a lot of scores to study, a lot to learn — we’re always learning in this business.”

She hears a new generation of composers moving into new and innovative spaces, drawing in wide influences and weaving together musical traditions.

“I’m really excited about the younger generation, generation Z, that has a fearless heart,” she said. “And these young composers, they’re fifteen, sixteen, fourteen year old composers, they’re getting their music read by the New York Phil … It’s a new day where new opportunities come.”

It remains to be seen, she said, whether the movement among leading organizations will truly move toward diversifying the music for the sake of moving music forward.

“I’m worried about exploitation as well.,” she said … These young composers may not get a chance to fully recognize their voice before they’re burnt out, because they’re so in-demand as young composers of color. So I’m on the front lines of that, in helping these young voices find themselves and find what they want to say in the music, find their language … so that they can become who they need to be.

“And I love this particular discipline, because many musical disciplines have an age of peak, but for composers, until the day we die, the creativity and all the things we’ve learned in the process — we continue to grow.”

Composer and pianist Brian Nabors has spent July 2021 as a composition fellow at Tanglewood. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Brian Nabors

Composer and pianist Brian Nabors has spent July 2021 as a composition fellow at Tanglewood. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Contemporary voices at Tanglewood

On July 30, National Poet Laureate Joy Harjo comes to celebrate creativity through acknowledgement of the ancestors of poetry and music in the story field of her writing.

Across that same weekend, Andris Nelsons and English pianist Paul Lewis, willperform all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos, each paired with a BSO co-commissioned piece by an American woman composer

July 29, Julia Adolphe’s Makeshift Castle

July 30, Caroline Shaw’s Punctum

July 31, Elizabeth Ogonek’s Starling Variations

On August 5, Brian Raphael Nabors, who has heard his work premiered across the country, including at Tanglewood last summer, returns with Pulse — a work for full orchestra, contemplating natural rhythms, and drawing on rhythms including crotales, marimba, cymbal, whip, tom-toms and tam-tam, and harp …

She wants to ensure this younger generation will have not only the opportunity but also the resources that they need to grow, she said. And she honors the generations before them that have led the way.

She admires the energy of musicians who also lead as activists, like harpist Angelica Hairston, who runs a nonprofit supporting BIPOC musicians and raising awareness. And she admires composers and musicians like Price for the strength they have shown in coming into the field and creating their work at a time when they were among the first, moving against pressure simply to do the work they love.

She turns to Pilot in warm admiration.

“If you just want to live your life and be the best you can, that in and of itself is a part of improving the situation, the struggle,” she said. “It’s a very powerful thing, that act of love for yourself is an act of love that can transform those around you. And I think that’s why we’re celebrating you.”

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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