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Inside the Music

Program Notes: brea(d)th

Carlos Simon, Jonathan Taylor Rush and Marc Bamuthi Joseph
Carlos Simon, Jonathan Taylor Rush and Marc Bamuthi Joseph

From May 18 to 20, 2023, the Minnesota Orchestra presents brea(d)th, with Jonathan Taylor Rush conducting music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Wynton Marsalis, as well as the world premiere of Carlos Simon and Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s brea(d)th, with Joseph serving as spoken word artist in performing his own libretto text, and the Minnesota Chorale, Twin Cities Choral Partners and 29:11 International Exchange also joining the premiere of brea(d)th.

The performances take place at Orchestra Hall on May 18, 19 and 20, 2023, and the concert on Friday, May 19, will be broadcast live on Twin Cities PBS (TPT-2), with William Eddins serving as broadcast host, and will be available for online streaming and on the Orchestra’s social media channels. It will also be broadcast live on stations of YourClassical Minnesota Public Radio, including KSJN 99.5 FM in the Twin Cities.

View a program insert with information about the art installation and murals on display in Orchestra Hall’s Roberta Mann Grand Foyer and Target Atrium from May 11-20, as well as acknowledgements and information about events beyond Orchestra Hall presented by George Floyd Global Memorial and Justice for George.

Program Notes

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Born: August 15, 1875, London, England
Died: September 1, 1912, London, England

Petite Suite de Concert, Opus 77
Composed: ca. 1911

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Petite Suite de Concert offers a variety of charming ideas in each of its brief yet affective four movements, showcasing the composer’s immense talents in capturing the romanticism and sentimentality of early 20th-century British musical tastes.

In recent years, Minnesota Orchestra audiences have had many opportunities to become familiar with the works of British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. This season, his music has already been featured three times: at the October 2022 iteration of the Orchestra’s Listening Project concert-and-recording series, which featured his Idyll; this past January, in two performances of his Solemn Prelude just four months after its U.S. premiere; and at a chamber music concert in March that included his Five Fantasy Pieces for String Quartet. The Petite Suite de Concert featured this week is the 12th work by Coleridge-Taylor to be programmed by the Orchestra since 2016.

Parallel legacies

The life, career and legacy of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is similar in its arc to many of the other Black composers who have historically been ignored by many Western institutions, but are being increasingly programmed by the Minnesota Orchestra and other ensembles in recent seasons. Like French composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges—whose two symphonies, as well as a violin concerto, were performed by the Orchestra for the first time in 2021—or William Dawson in the U.S., whose Negro Folk Symphony was heard earlier this year, Coleridge-Taylor achieved a considerable amount of recognition and popularity during his lifetime in his home country and abroad. But once each of these three composers passed away, their works languished and remained unprogrammed by major ensembles for decades because their creators were Black. It is only within the past few years, as many ensembles begin to rectify their role in systemic racism, that a wide audience is again hearing these underappreciated musical gems.

The success of Coleridge-Taylor’s best-known work, a cantata called Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, led to the composer’s three tours to the U.S. and a personal meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House in 1904. Despite his publisher, Novello, selling thousands of copies of the work’s score, Coleridge-Taylor remained in a dire financial predicament for most of his life; the rights were purchased outright for 15 shillings with no royalties to be paid to the composer. 

Advocacy through music

Throughout most of his life, Coleridge-Taylor used his art as advocacy for the advancement of the rights of Africans and African-descended people around the globe. When his 24 Negro Melodies were published in 1905, he wrote: “What Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk-music, Dvořák for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for Negro melodies.” Many other works also sought to incorporate elements of African music, like his orchestral piece Symphonic Variations on an African Air. Additionally, Coleridge-Taylor was friends with influential poet and novelist Laurence Dunbar and set many of Dunbar’s poems to music. In 1900, he was the youngest attendee of the Pan-African Conference in London, where he met influential American writer W.E.B. Du Bois. The two formed a friendship and through Du Bois’ writing, Coleridge-Taylor gained fame in America as a beacon of success in a prominently white field. Before his life was cut short by pneumonia at age 37, he wrote nearly 90 orchestral, chamber and solo works.

A light-hearted affair

The Petite Suite de Concert is charming and entertaining fare, light on the drama and packed with memorable themes reminiscent of Edward Elgar. Written in 1911, the suite is cast in four movements, and a complete performance takes approximately 16 minutes. 

la caprice de Nannette. The first movement opens with a curtain-raising theme pronounced by the entire orchestra, punctuated by the percussion. After this opening section gets repeated, primary and secondary themes are presented by the first violins and flutes. Cast in a triple meter, this movement retains a waltz-like feeling throughout. After the briefest of developments, the main themes return before a triumphant close.

demande et réponse. Against the gently pulsing syncopations in the lower strings, the first violins present the second movement’s tender melody. The woodwinds then join, with the flutes, piccolo, oboes and clarinets having their turn at the melody with the first violins. A playful call-and-response section comprises the middle of the movement before the return of the opening material. The violins are instructed to play the reprise with mutes, making this delicate material even more ethereal. The melody of this movement proved so popular that it was adapted and published as a song called Question and Answer, with lyrics by Arthur Stanley. 

un sonnet d’amour. The third movement retains the beauty and elegance of the second, featuring fluttering figures which introduce the songful main theme initially presented by the first violins. The movement’s primary key is A major, but the development section shifts to A minor, darkening the mood, but not for long; it lasts only 20 measures before we hear a reprise of the main theme, gorgeously presented by the violas.

la tarantelle frétillante. Roughly translated, the title of the closing movement is “the quivering tarantella.” Historically, tarantellas were dances originating in 15th- to 17th-century Italy meant to be danced by victims of tarantula bites to cure oneself of tarantism. Tarantellas are lively, quick dances set in 6/8 time, and Coleridge-Taylor’s is no different, featuring a flurry of notes and themes that get passed among the orchestra at a fast pace. As in the preceding movements, a short middle section offers contrasting material before the piece races to an exuberant close.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, triangle, glockenspiel and strings

Program note by Michael Divino.

Wynton Marsalis
Born: October 18, 1961, New Orleans, Louisiana

Concerto for Tubist and Orchestra
Premiered: December 9, 2021

The rarely spotlighted tuba takes center stage in a recent concerto by the eminent composer, jazz trumpeter and bandleader Wynton Marsalis—fusing traditions ranging from classical to bebop to boogaloo. Of note are a passage in which the soloist plays the tuba and sings simultaneously, and a blistering finale that nods to bebop saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker.

Wynton Marsalis is on a bit of a concerto streak: the success of his Violin Concerto, completed in 2015, prompted the Philadelphia Orchestra to commission another for the relatively neglected tuba. Just last month, the Cleveland Orchestra and its Principal Trumpet Michael Sachs premiered a concerto for trumpet, Marsalis’ own instrument as a performer.

The Tuba Concerto was written for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Principal Tuba Carol Jantsch, who premiered it with that ensemble in December 2021. Like many of Marsalis’ compositions, it is a prism through which the conventions of Western classical music and various Black musical traditions are refracted, reimagined and recombined. Blood on the Fields—Marsalis’ 1997 Pulitzer Prize–winning jazz oratorio—is perhaps the most famous example of his hybrid aesthetic, one that uses the symphony orchestra as the vehicle for the performance and adaptation of jazz and other Black musical idioms. In this respect, Marsalis’ music can be heard as a 21st-century continuation of the musical and political projects begun by such works as Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha of 1911, William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony of 1931 and Florence Price’s Symphony No. 3, which premiered in 1939.

The sound of virtuosity

Marsalis’ Tuba Concerto invites listeners to consider the ways in which the sound of virtuosity of that instrument has changed according to historical and cultural circumstances. Concertos have long served as vehicles through which the soloist could display their technical prowess. Romantic-era composers such as Niccolò Paganini and Franz Liszt helped establish what is now perhaps the most familiar paradigm for virtuoso performance, featuring bravura displays of showmanship through the execution of breathtaking passagework and hair-raising extended techniques. Yet virtuosity has not always been synonymous with musical pyrotechnics; a soloist’s skill can be just as easily showcased in the performance of daringly simple textures and delicate turns of phrase.

Marsalis’ Tuba Concerto combines these different approaches to virtuosity from the European classical tradition with hallmark features of craftsmanship and skill from a range of Black and Latin musical idioms. Within improvisatory genres such as jazz and the blues, soloists often showcase their talents not only through audacious technical feats but also by the deft interpolation of quotations, allusions and paraphrases of other pieces. This concerto offers the soloist numerous opportunities to showcase their mastery of these different kinds of virtuosity. In addition to both lyricism and bravura, the soloist must also perform in a kaleidoscopic array of idioms, ranging from bebop to boogaloo. The concerto thus presents a tour de force that demonstrates the comprehensive musical knowledge of both soloist and composer.

The music: Spotlighting many traditions

Up! The first movement comes closest to what one might expect from a contemporary classical concerto. Accompanied by marcato exclamations in the orchestra, the solo line hops about in odd-angled intervals and features three cadenzas requiring the performance of multiphonics, a technique in which the performer plays one pitch while singing a different pitch.

Boogaloo Americana. The title of the second movement clearly signals Marsalis’ hybrid aesthetic. Originating in New York City during the 1960s, boogaloo is a style of dance music that mixes the rhythm and blues rooted in African American tradition with Latin idioms such as mambo and son montuno. Through the use of hand claps and agogo bells, this movement adapts some aspects of boogaloo’s musical language to the symphonic orchestral palette, with occasional pivots to the open-fourth harmonies that characterize the so-called Americana aesthetic popularized by Aaron Copland during the 1940s.

Lament. During the third movement, the tuba is given some of the most melodically arresting material in the entire concerto. After the brooding dissonances of the opening section, the movement presents several dirge-like marches before turning to a “gospel shuffle” in the final section. Notated with instructions such as “shout as if wailing wasn’t enough,” the tuba line carries much of the emotional weight of the movement’s climax.

In Bird’s basement. Replete with blisteringly fast solo lines and raucously unstable harmonic progressions, the final movement, the title of which references the nickname of bebop saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, brings the piece to an energetic close while providing one final opportunity for the soloist to showcase their stylistic versatility.

Instrumentation: solo tuba with orchestra comprising 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, snare drum, 3 bass drums, cymbals, hi-hat cymbal, ride cymbal, splash cymbal, suspended cymbal, agogo bells, bongos, cabasa, castanets, cha-cha bell, cowbells, gong, tambourine, tom-toms, triangle, wood block, xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel and strings

Program note by Sean Colonna.

Carlos Simon
Born: April 13, 1986, Washington, D.C.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph
Born: November 20, 1975, New York City 

Premiering: May 18, 2023

View the libretto of brea(d)th, written by Marc Bamuthi Joseph.

In this week’s world premiere of brea(d)th, with music by Carlos Simon and libretto by Marc Bamuthi Joseph—who performs as spoken word artist—the murder of George Floyd is situated in the context of the United States’ centuries-long oppression of Black Americans, asking the audience to consider how we heal and what comes next. Joseph’s libretto, which “considers bread, as in value, breath, as in lifeforce, and breadth, as in the radius of American promise,” is tightly woven with Simon’s music of great emotional range—at turns solemn, bluesy, heart-rending and dissonant, with an instrumental Elegy movement for strings placed at the center.

The summer of 2020 will remain in our region’s cultural memory for decades, even generations, to come. The murder of George Floyd on a south Minneapolis street corner was not a singular incident: Black people have been killed in state-sanctioned violence throughout our country’s history. Floyd’s brutal death ignited protests against police brutality in the Twin Cities and around the world both because it was horrific and because it was captured on film, in widely shared footage taken by witness Darnella Frazier. Carlos Simon and Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s brea(d)th, which receives its world premiere performances this week, situates George Floyd’s story in the context of this country’s centuries-long oppression of Black Americans, and asks us to consider, “what comes next?”

Visionary collaborators come to Minnesota 

Composer Simon and librettist Joseph regularly explore and illuminate Black American cultural expression through their work. Some of Simon’s recent orchestral pieces include Four Black American Dances (2023), a classical interpretation of dance types common in Black communities; Requiem for the Enslaved (2021), commemorating the 272 people enslaved and sold by Georgetown University, where Simon is now an assistant professor; and Warmth from Other Suns (2020), a string quartet reflecting the stories of Black Americans during the 20th century’s Great Migration from the South to urban centers in the northern and western United States. Joseph’s recent works include The Just and the Blind (2019), which examines fatherhood in a time of mass incarceration; and the libretto to the opera We Shall Not Be Moved (remounted this month at the Pittsburgh Opera), in which five teenagers in current-day Philadelphia are confronted with the 1975 bombing of the MOVE headquarters. Simon and Joseph previously collaborated on Kennedy Center projects it all falls down (2022) and The Road Ahead (2022).

Whether working together or separately, Simon and Joseph are among the most in-demand creators in the classical field in the U.S. today. Simon is the composer in residence for the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and his newest album, Requiem for the Enslaved, earned him a 2023 Grammy nomination. His music is already familiar to Minnesota Orchestra audiences, with his works An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave—which has been incorporated as the third movement of brea(d)th—and Fate Now Conquers receiving performances at Orchestra Hall in recent seasons. In addition to composing concert music for large and small ensembles, he has scored films and toured as a music director and keyboardist. An Atlanta native, he earned degrees from the University of Michigan, Georgia State University and Morehouse College, and has compared his musical work to that of a preacher, stating: “Music is my pulpit. That’s where I preach.” (Joseph’s achievements and background are detailed in a separate profile.)

After the Minnesota Orchestra commissioned Simon and Joseph to create a new piece in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the composer and librettist visited the Twin Cities twice in 2022 in preparation for writing brea(d)th. The visits were dedicated to learning about the region, meeting local artists and activists, and taking a pilgrimage to George Floyd Square. The visit to the Square was significant to Simon, who said he “wanted to feel the energy in that space, in that particular part of town,” and found that the presence of neighbors sitting on their porches and sharing stories “felt like home.” Conversations with Angela Harrelson, George Floyd’s aunt and a daily presence in the Square, enabled the creative duo to learn more about Floyd as a person and his family’s history. Details gleaned from the visits appear throughout brea(d)th, weaving a powerful connection between the expanse of African American history and the conditions of Floyd’s life and death. An inscription at the top of the score to brea(d)th reads “Commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra for George Floyd,” but the piece also examines the centuries of what Joseph calls “transgressions against Black dignity” wrought by the United States. Joseph himself, in the role of honored culture-bearer and griot—a West African storyteller-poet-historian—delivers the spoken word component of brea(d)th in these premiere performances. 

The artists’ statement

Joseph and Simon provided the following artists’ statement on brea(d)th, written by Joseph.

Brea(d)th is a classical work, inspired by the enduring presence of George Floyd the Ancestor, asking America to consider an equitable future. We come to the resilient and root-rich Twin Cities as outsiders, but we composed this work from within the walls of Black emotion, curiosity, and dignity. The piece explores a historical timeline that stretches from the pre-colonial to the present condition, and perhaps further, into a post-pandemic America. Who would we be if we used covid-19 as an opportunity to focus on both public health and public healing? Our entire country has endured a trauma…how do we publicly heal?...

Brea(d)th is a work in five movements, ranging from the Pentecostal to the monastic. I created a libretto that considers bread, as in value, breath, as in lifeforce, and breadth, as in the radius of American promise. Encoded within the work is a reverence for local intelligence, sacrifice, loss, and strength. The Minnesota Orchestra is a citizen institution, and thus the work has an implied and imbued civic import. Truthfully, though, our commitment was to make a work that emanated from and responded to a local experience, while recognizing the hollowing hope that vastly stretches across the body of African America. 

Brea(d)th is a moving, yearning, admonition for repair. It was made by two American sons in honor of George, and in reflection of the fellowship of the gone too soon…”

Brea(d)th: a powerful message in words and music

prologue. The first movement begins solemnly with triplet gestures and a melody comprised of three ascending, then descending pitches that wend through the orchestra. The choir then enters, putting words to the emerging theme: “Give us this day, our daily bread.” An oscillating tritone motif provides a restless backdrop to Joseph’s text as he guides the listener through reminders of lives lost and the resilience of a people who have endured centuries of oppression. Joseph connects George Floyd’s murder to a broader historical context when he uses “bread” to mean both money and value: he speaks of the “...armed robbery of breath / over some bread and / the wide genocidal breadth of / our country’s racial timeline/ our country’s daily bread…” The movement ends as quietly as it started, the final prayer chanted by the choir, then treble instruments, and at last in the low brass.

breath. Movement two is a meditation on life after death. It opens with the low rumbling of the surdo, a bass drum common in Brazilian samba music, and a bluesy sweep of strings. “Breathe in relief,” Joseph says, “the moon is sweet,” but soon remarks that “the night smells strangely of fruit to me”—a reference to the 1939 song Strange Fruit, written by Abel Meeropol and popularized by Billie Holiday. Melodies for trumpet, trombone and piano float on the breeze as the surdo plays on, illuminating the text that says “Breath is drum.” When the surdo stops playing, Joseph reflects that those we call Ancestors have gained in the afterlife a sense of dignity not afforded them when they lived: “Breath becomes / the way Ancestors pay at the gates / in heaven breath is bread.”

elegy. The last three movements of the piece—Elegy, Bread and Breadth—proceed attacca, one into the next without pause. Elegy is a previously existing piece for strings that Carlos Simon composed in 2015. Subtitled A Cry from the Grave, the song of lamentation is dedicated “to those who have been murdered wrongfully by an oppressive power; namely Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown.” Elegy features melodic fragments that travel between sections, dramatic changes in texture and volume, and heart-rending soli for viola and cello. The piece ends on a major chord—unexpectedly clear harmony in comparison to anything before or after it. The Minnesota Orchestra performed this piece in a broadcast and livestreamed performance on May 28, 2021, just over one year after the murder of George Floyd.

bread. Bread—the most programmatic of the movements—includes details specific to the Twin Cities. In addition to acknowledging land stolen from Indigenous people, Joseph references the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue (now known as George Floyd Square); the historic 24 Demands for Justice drawn up by Minneapolis residents; and biographical details about George Floyd’s life, including that he had 13 siblings and loved to make music in church. At the mention of a “counterfeit bill”—relating both to the broken treaties between Native communities and colonizers, as well as the $20 bill George Floyd had on the day he was murdered—an eruption of pitches based on the interval of an open fifth with added dissonance breaks the reflective atmosphere. A cello solo undergirds Joseph’s question, “If not justice for all America / then how do you choose? / Who wins America? / Does somebody invariably lose?” Increasingly disjunct intervals paint an auditory response to this rhetorical question, before returning to more reflective and sustained harmonies. The movement ends with the chorus’ prayer of conscience: “May we feast on the bread that brought us one more day to get it right.”

breadth. The fifth and final movement begins with a percussive building of tension releasing into a theme that moves through the ensemble in an insistent, fugue-like manner. “So much work has been done,” cries the chorus, “Who does the work that’s still left?” The first iteration of a representative governing body in the colonies that would later become the United States met in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. There was no mention during the six-day long assembly of the practice of enslavement, though the capture, enslaving and trading of Africans was underway in the Americas by then. A huge breadth of history—244 years—passed before the Emancipation Proclamation ordered the end of enslavement, and another five years went by before the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868 granted some African Americans—the vast majority descendants of slavery—legal voting rights. Joseph revisits that figure of 244 years, reminding us that it will be the second decade of the 22nd century, 244 years after 1868, “by the time there is a parity of Black enslavement and Black political agency,” and at that point, “NO one in this room will be alive.” The strings and winds pulse the passage of time before the fugue theme returns and the chorus asks repeatedly, “Who does the work that’s still left?”

The movement ends as it began: with a pedal point in low strings illustrating, perhaps, the expansive weight and breadth of the labor necessary for equity, and an inexorable building of tension that signifies—what? A horrific injustice? A roar of questions? An uprising of emotion? A defiant challenge? Simon has left it to the individual listener to choose.

Instrumentation: spoken word narrator and SATB mixed chorus with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, ride cymbal, suspended cymbal, bell tree, crotales, surdo, tamtam, vibraphone, chimes and strings 

Program note by Shekela Wanyama. Wanyama, along with Kathy Saltzman Romey, prepared the choirs for this week’s performances of brea(d)th and sings in the soprano section.