116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Two composers living in different centuries and different circumstances used music to bring social commentary to their artists and audiences.
Orchestra Iowa is tying those threads together in “Voices of Change,” presenting Joel Thompson’s “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in concert Saturday night at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids and Sunday afternoon at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City.
“When I program works, I always try and find works that not only complement each other, but also illuminate the meaning of each work, especially old classical works that people have forgotten the meaning with. And then you can complement it with a contemporary work, and it will bring out the original intent of the great masterwork, in this case Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,” Maestro Timothy Hankewich said during an April 11 conversation with Orchestra Iowa board member Anne Harris Carter.
“Because of the pandemic, we missed Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, and so everybody in the world is doing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but most people have forgotten its meaning,” Hankewich said.
What: Orchestra Iowa: “Voices of Change”
Featuring: Joel Thompson’s “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with national soloists and local choirs
Cedar Rapids: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 23, 2022, Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE; Insights with Maestro Timothy Hankewich and Joel Thompson, 6:45 p.m., Encore Lounge, free to ticket holders
Iowa City: 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 24, 2022, Hancher Auditorium, 141 E. Park Rd.; Insights with Maestro Timothy Hankewich and Joel Thompson, 1:45 p.m., Stanley Cafe, free to ticket holders
Tickets: $16 to $56. For Paramount tickets, go to artsiowa.com/tickets/concerts/voices-of-change-beethoven9/ or Paramount Ticket Office, 119 Third Ave. SE; student tickets available in-person or at (319) 366-8203. For Hancher tickets, go to the Hancher Box Office or hbotix.hancher.uiowa.edu/Online/default.asp
Known for its “Ode to Joy” choral movement, Hankewich said it’s “not necessarily about joy itself. It’s a personification of joy — where joy is achieved through brotherhood and through equality and togetherness and justice. And yes, this idea called democracy.
“When Beethoven originally wrote the piece, it was a work of defiance and of political outrage. He could have been arrested for it, because the text at the time was banned because of this dangerous idea we call democracy.
“Well, 250 years later, there’s this piece by Joel Thompson called ‘The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,’ and from a very different experience and a different perspective. And over this chasm of 250 years, it’s essentially about the same thing.”
Thompson’s choral work premiered in 2015, and focuses on the last words of Kenneth Chamberlain, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant III, John Crawford and Eric Garner — Black men who were killed by police or in the case of Martin, by George Zimmerman, described as a neighborhood watch captain.
Thompson, an Atlanta-based composer, pianist, conductor and educator born in 1988, is working on his doctoral degree in composition at Yale School of Music. He is coming to the Corridor for the Orchestra Iowa concerts, and will join Hankewich for the pre-show Insights discussions at the Paramount and Hancher.
Discovering the work
“I didn’t know about this piece until two years ago,” said Hankewich, 54, of Cedar Rapids.
“I first heard ‘Seven Last Words of the Unarmed’ back in 2020,” said Harris Carter, 58, of Cedar Rapids. “In fact, it was literally just within days after George Floyd had been murdered. I heard it on an overnight program on public radio, and was just struck with the enormity of the work and the feelings that at the time I was trying to process related to what had happened in Minneapolis.
“And for me, a big piece of that is thinking about my own children. In this case, this piece is about Black men killed by law enforcement or other authorities. And that’s part of the story. The much broader story for me as thinking about my Black children, in particular my Black son, who could potentially, at any point, end up on the wrong side of a gun. Even though he’s highly educated, he’s working, that does not necessarily shield him from something going wrong in our country.
“I literally was lying in bed. I don’t think I was weeping tears, but weeping in my heart.”
A few months later, she was a guest on Hankewich’s pandemic Facebook Live “Happy Hour” discussion, where the show’s theme that week was on the murder of George Floyd, and diversity in classical music and in orchestras.
Harris Carter mentioned Thompson’s piece, having no idea that Orchestra Iowa might actually present it in concert.
“I'm just thrilled that our community has the opportunity to experience this work,” she said. “It is a work that I still listen to with some difficulty because of the current-day implications, but I know that it’s important work. It’s powerful music. It’s powerful music — the words are powerful, and it also has some very beautiful, beautiful elements.”
It’s a short piece, lasting about 20 minutes for all seven movements that have distinctly different musical tones.
“When I heard this piece, I was dumbfounded,” Hankewich said. “It is a masterwork of our time and I knew the composer’s reputation — Joel Thompson, an African-American composer who was really hitting the scene — but I didn’t know this work. And when I first heard it, I thought, ‘Wow, this really needs to be heard.’
“Part of its power is, he sets the last words of people like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner to music in an incredibly powerful and musical and artistic way. That’s the advantage of art, in that art puts a mirror in front of our society. … I knew immediately this is the piece that needs to be paired with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”
Harris Carter, newly appointed health equity program manager at the Linn County Public Health, hopes the concert and the questions it raises will spark conversation among the audience and radiating into the community. She’s also pleased that all four Beethoven vocal soloists are Black.
“I grew up attending Orchestra Iowa concerts, sitting back there with my parents (Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris) from elementary school through high school, and then my senior year in high school, I played violin back in the second violin section, and then I majored in music at Yale,” Harris Carter said.
“And so I know from my experiences that there just are not a lot of Black artists in classical music or in symphony. And I’m very grateful that we have the opportunity to have four African American soloists, because that type of programming happens only with intentionality. And that’s just the director that we have in Maestro Tim.”
One of the four soloists is soprano A. Renee (born Ashley Renee Watkins), 37, a New Orleans native now living in New Jersey and working full-time as a music curriculum specialist for The Juilliard School in New York City.
Also in the solo spotlight are mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven, tenor Chauncey Packer and bass James Martin, all of whom have extensive performance experience with operas and symphonies. Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale and college choirs from Coe, Cornell, Kirkwood and Mount Mercy University will join them onstage.
Diamond Roundtree of Cedar Rapids, a sophomore at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, will provide the spoken word response to “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.”
A. Renee grew up singing with her grandmother every day, as well as singing in church and singing a “gumbo” of music at McDonogh 35 Senior High School in New Orleans, before moving on to undergrad and graduate studies.
Being among four Black soloists for the Beethoven resonates with her on several levels.
“Within the context of the organization, depending on the settings and societies, lots of people have been doing things with soloists that represent the communities that they’re within,” she said. “What makes it matter is when it’s done so purposely in places that it hasn’t historically been done in. That’s what makes it truly something to talk about.
“I love to hear some thinking around those kind of choices — not for justification purposes, but for expanding thought. Because we haven’t talked about (the fact) that there have been so many programs that they’re just all white soloist,” she said.
“It’s usually been, ‘Oh well, that’s just the way the population swings. There’s a majority of white people so there’s going to be a majority of a pool of white people to pull from.’ But I think that there is something to purposefully seeking out historically underrepresented voices in singing. I think that matters.”
Iowa native bass-baritone Simon Estes helped open doors for Black opera singers in the mid-1960s, paving the way for those who came after — and still are building on that legacy.
“I think it’s coming,” A. Renee said. “It still has to be done on purpose. It’s still not second nature yet. So if you have to just say, ‘We are going to engage a Black artist,’ then say it and do it, because it’s not a question of whether we’ve had artists of great talents and ability. We know that they have existed over history and over time.
“There’s not really a reason why today that paths and spaces can’t be diversified with artists of color, period, and not just Black artists, because we exist. But I do think some of the larger institutions and some of the more visible regional institutions are now doing it on purpose, and audiences appreciate it and they show up for it. I hope that it keeps getting done on purpose until it becomes second nature,” she said.
“I can name so many of my friends and colleagues and artists that I respect greatly that are making waves not because of the color of their skin, but because of just how phenomenal of artists they are. When they’re finally being given a chance to show that to the world, and it’s not because of color skin that they’re being given that chance.
“I think it’s because people are finally saying, ‘We’re going to stop gatekeeping them out of the room. They deserve to be there and should have always been there to begin with.’
“That’s the confidence that I have around it,” she said. “It’s pushing against the gatekeeping and allowing people to be in places they deserve to be in.”
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