New Awakenings concert series reflects on civil rights issues, aims to provide healing and hope
By Jodi Heckel
A new concert series featuring two performances this spring will touch on themes of hope, reconciliation and healing.
Barrington Coleman, a professor of vocal jazz studies in the School of Music and the director of the Varsity Men’s Glee Club, initiated the New Awakenings concert series. He said it arose out of his reflection on events in the last few years – the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and other police shootings, and the effects of both on the nation’s welfare.
“I was inspired by what I believe was a need to reach out beyond our comfort zone. I wanted to find something to inspire and help us through a very difficult time, and to reach back and find out how so many who have blazed these trails made it through such turbulence,” Coleman said.
The first performance April 9 at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts will feature “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” written by Emmy Award-winning composer Joel Thompson. The work, which premiered in 2015, is based on the last words of victims of police shootings, including Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. Thompson was influenced by Joseph Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ” and artist Shirin Barghi’s #lastwords project.
“It is an homage to fallen victims of racial injustice,” Coleman said.
The classical chamber piece written for men’s voices will be performed by the Varsity Men’s Glee Club; the men of the Black Chorus and the Chamber Singers; the Jupiter String Quartet, whose members are artists-in-residence at the U. of I. School of Music; and pianist and vocal coaching professor Casey Robards. In Thompson’s composition, each victim’s last words are set in a different musical style.
The Jupiter String Quartet also will perform “Elegy: A Cry from the Grave” by composer Carlos Simon, which is his reaction to the unjust police shootings of Black men. Arinze Okammor, a dancer and Varsity Men’s Glee Club member, choreographed a solo to the music that he will dance at the concert.
Guest composer and conductor Robert A. Harris – an emeritus professor of music at Northwestern University and one of Coleman’s mentors – will conduct “All the Land Weeps,” his work that was commissioned to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Coleman’s directorship of the Varsity Men’s Glee Club. The composition is based on the words of a Chicago Tribune editor reflecting on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The Varsity Men’s Glee Club and the men of the Black Chorus and the Chamber Singers will perform it.
Grammy Award-winning jazz bassist Christian McBride will perform his work “The Movement Revisited – A Musical Tribute to Four Icons” at the culminating New Awakenings concert May 1 at KCPA. The composition pays tribute to civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Muhammed Ali through words and music.
The 70-minute jazz-influenced composition includes narration taken from King’s historical mountaintop speech, personal reflections of Parks, interviews with Malcolm X and the words of Ali, Coleman said. McBride will perform with some of his band members and the School of Music’s Concert Jazz Band, led by jazz performance chair Chip McNeill. Vocal performers include a chorus of singers from campus and community choirs, as well as guest artists.
“My hope is that the presentation does more than entertain, that it creates an opportunity for dialogue and introspection,” Coleman said. “In order to go forward, it’s helpful at times, even though it’s painful, to look back. There certainly has to be some reflection on the atrocities we’ve experienced in this country as a result of racism.
“The thing I love about music and art is that we have a way of communicating through this language that is spiritual and transformative,” he said. “Where we run short on words, the gesture of music is more powerful and connects us through our souls in a way policies and politics cannot.”
McBride and several guest artists will visit jazz studies classes and offer master classes in the week before the concert.
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