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Listening Intently, Expanding the Canon

Photo by Scott Streble

When deciding what music to feature on a program, orchestras consider a whole host of questions: How much time has passed since a particular piece was last performed? What music appeals to audiences and challenges musicians? What repertoires do the music director and musicians want to play? How will disparate works complement each other in a single concert? That last question can be difficult to answer, especially when there are countless compositions that have never been recorded and thus are difficult to imagine the sound of.

The Minnesota Orchestra is working to help address this gap. In October 2021, musicians and staff kickstarted the Listening Project, an effort to deepen the ensemble’s knowledge of great orchestral works by historically underrepresented composers whose music is less likely to have been professionally recorded.

Together with First Associate Concertmaster Susie Park, Acting Assistant Principal Viola Sam Bergman has led the Listening Project since its inception. He explained the initiative’s intention: “In the beginning stages of the Listening Project, our focus was on creating recordings that would fan the flames of enthusiasm for these incredible composers.” To ensure those flames kept burning not just at Orchestra Hall but across the classical music world, the Listening Project took on the subsequent goal of recording these works to support conductors and orchestral programmers elsewhere; after all, if a music director doesn’t know what a work sounds like, how can they fit it into their respective symphony’s repertoire?

Because such scores aren’t widely performed as of yet, musicians in the Orchestra’s Artistic Advisory Committee sifted through online databases to identify potential pieces for the ensemble to learn. Park recently joined Bergman for an appearance on Aaron Dworkin’s Arts Engines show to share the details of this exploration. “With the awesome help of our on-staff librarians, we were able to use their networks and reach out to whoever might have these parts and scores,” she said. Though she has performed with great symphony orchestras across the United States, Europe and Oceania, Park noted how she has gained new familiarities with classical music by participating in the Listening Project. “It’s been a great opportunity to learn about so much music that I didn’t even know existed—I didn’t know about so many composers that I now know of.”

With a stack of unfamiliar scores acquired and in-hand, the programming team went about selecting a mix of compositions to rehearse. The five selections they landed on for those initial recording sessions in 2021—all created by Black composers—ranged widely in style and technique, from Ulysses Kay’s neo-classical Concerto for Orchestra to Margaret Bonds’ gripping Montgomery Variations (1964). Under the direction of guest conductor Scott Yoo and in collaboration with YourClassical Minnesota Public Radio, the Orchestra held a week of studio sessions where it recorded these compositions for the very first time—all of which can be heard here.

YourClassical MPR’s regional radio network now has access to these high-quality recordings, allowing them to re-share the under-performed works with listeners across Minnesota and elsewhere into the future. Beyond these re-broadcasts, the Orchestra itself can now weave these pieces into its own repertoire. “We were mindful of not wanting to seem as if our intention was to wall off the genius of these Black composers from the rest of our programming, as if Black voices should somehow stand apart from composers like Brahms, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky,” Bergman reflected. “For that reason, we focused additional energies on ensuring that music by composers of color is included in nearly every concert program the Orchestra presents, alongside works that our audiences may be more familiar with.” (In November, for instance, Yoo will return to the podium for a concert that features Kay’s concerto accompanied by the music of Tchaikovsky and Bartók.)

While last year’s recording sessions did not include a public performance, this year’s iteration of the Listening Project will be performed in front of a live audience on October 7 at Orchestra Hall. “As we looked back on our first season of Listening Project recordings, the one thing that seemed to be missing was the energy of a live audience,” said Bergman. “We're so thrilled to be able to expand the scope of the project this season and bring a whole new assemblage of rarely heard orchestral work by Black composers past and present to our subscription audiences.”

Led by guest conductor Kensho Watanabe, the ensemble will again perform works in a range of styles by a mix of contemporary and historic composers, including Eleanor Alberga, Margaret Bonds, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Adolphus Hailstork, Florence Price and Hale Smith. Much like last year’s iteration, this concert will be recorded in collaboration with YourClassical MPR, and recordings will be shared with the African Diaspora Music Project (ADMP)—a comprehensive repository for resources on classical works by composers of African descent. Dr. Louise Toppin, the ADMP’s founder and a critically acclaimed soprano and scholar on African American composers, will host the evening, helping place these works in the broader context and canon to which they have always belonged.

Learn more about the works to be performed on October 7, and find your tickets here.