Emerging black composers part of DSO's Classical Roots weekend

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
Jessie Montgomery, a composer and violinist, conducts a workshop with the EarShot participants.

As part of Classical Roots at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra this weekend, four emerging African-American composers will get their day in the sun. 

Classical Roots, of course, is the DSO's annual tribute to African-American music and composers. The emerging artists, whose works-in-progress will be performed at Orchestra Hall Saturday from 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. — open to the public and free — are beneficiaries of the national EarShot program, which seeks to advance new talent. 

"We don’t call them performances per se," said Ed Yim, president of New York's American Composers Orchestra that sponsors the EarShot program. "We call them ‘readings,'" in part, he added, to lower pressure on the writers.

"For the most part," he added, "these emerging composers haven’t yet heard their works performed by a professional orchestra. So with EarShot, they get the opportunity to see how their music wears with actual musicians, and not just on a piece of paper."

The composers also get one-on-one consultations with musicians and three mentor-composers during the week. 

The four novices, who had to compete to win their slots, include Brian Nabors, who's just finishing up his Ph.D. at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, and Marian L. Harrison Stephens, the first African-American to get a music-composition doctorate from Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. 

The other two are Anthony Tidd, director of the Creative Music Program at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, and Kerwin Young, who's a well-known composer and producer in the film and hip-hop worlds.

The key thing, however, is hearing their music performed for the very first time. 

"The first time a composer hears their work with an orchestra can be an overwhelming experience — it's not uncommon for them to become emotional," said Gabriela Lena Frank, a former composer-in-residence for the DSO who returned this week to help mentor the new talents. 

Frank stresses the readings aren't just passive exercises — composers get rare feedback from players that can be key to improving their works. It all requires something of a steel will.

"Emotions have to be put aside for the moment," Frank said, "so that we can be super-technical given the precious few minutes with the players, addressing questions they might have or pointing out things that could be done better." 

The composers will each leave Detroit with a tape for their personal use and study, she noted, another benefit that's not easy for new composers to come by. 

"And even though it’s not quantifiable," Frank added, "they also leave with a relationship with one of the country's major orchestras. So when they write a new work, for example, they can write somebody they’ve met to say, ‘I just wanted to share news about this new piece I’m working on.’ And that’s invaluable."

This year's 41st annual Classical Roots celebration will honor African-American philanthropist William F. Pickard with performances both Friday and Saturday.

The programs will spotlight works by composer and educator Robert A. Harris and the late George Walker, the first African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. 

Classical Roots at the DSO

Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, 3711 Woodward, Detroit 

10:45 a.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday 

Tickets: $15-$100

Free: EarShot readings: 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Saturday 


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