In the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, the musicians and staff of the Minnesota Orchestra reflected on how to bring about change.
One answer, it turns out, was to make music.
This week, the orchestra announced the commission of a major composition for orchestra and choir by two black artists: Carlos Simon, one of the country’s most sought-after composers, and librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph.
The piece – titled “brea(d)th” – honors not only Floyd, but the work toward fairness and healing that the Washington, DC-based duo witnessed on the ground in Minneapolis.
“We’re very clear that we don’t want to do a requiem,” Joseph said via Zoom. “This is not the biography of a single person, and it is not an account of the events of May 2020…
“It’s as much the story of Daunte Wright or the story of Philando Castile as it is the story of George Floyd.”
Since Floyd’s death, major orchestras across the country have been commissioning and programming more pieces by black composers, a change musicians of color have long called for.
“I’m more encouraged than ever,” said Afa S. Dworkin, president and artistic director of the Sphynx organization, which has campaigned for diversity in the arts for 25 years.
But she wants to make sure these changes last beyond a season or two, beyond when they’re “in vogue,” so that they “become part of our DNA.”
Commissions are essential to this long-term work, Dworkin said. “Composers, librettists and artists are not only there to express themselves but also to document, narrate and tell our story today.”
The Minnesota Orchestra will premiere the piece in May 2023, but its leaders hope it will be performed often and beyond Orchestra Hall, said Beth Kellar-Long, the orchestra’s vice president of administration.
“While the murder of George Floyd happened here and had a devastating and specific effect on the Twin Cities,” she said, “it also radiated and had an effect on the United States and the world”.
Connect to the community
The three-part, 30-minute work for orchestra, choir and soloists took shape over several visits to Minneapolis.
It’s unusual for Simon. “Typically,” he said, “I get an order and the orchestra says, ‘Write the piece. We’ll see you at the premiere.’ “
While in Minneapolis earlier this month, he and Joseph attended a rehearsal and met with a committee.
But the couple also spent time in churches and cafes, meeting the community. They were on their way to George Floyd Square when news broke that the police officer who shot 22-year-old Amir Locke in an apartment complex opposite Orchestra Hall would not be charged.
“So that was also part of the scenery of our visit,” Joseph said, shaking his head.
These events added to the questions they were already weighing, Simon said. “Who is this piece for? Is it for the patrons of the Minnesota Orchestra or is it for the community?”
In response, Simon and Joseph craft a version of the piece that can be performed by a smaller ensemble, say, in George Floyd Square.
The commission is part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s broader attempt to diversify its repertoire, as evidenced by the announcement this week of its next season, which opens with Wynton Marsalis’ “Swing Symphony” and includes the first piano concerto by black composer Jessie Montgomery, “Rounds”.
More quietly, the orchestra has recorded music by composers who have been ostracized and neglected because of their race and gender. This is part of a national effort to make this music better known to orchestras and encourage them to program it.
An example: “Montgomery Variations” by Margaret Bonds written as a tribute to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964. It has rarely been performed and has never been professionally recorded.
“It’s not always easy to find good recordings of quality works,” Dworkin noted. “You have to do it, and you have to do it well.
“And that’s how we’ll change our canon.”
An opportunity for change
Simon has been busy. So have his friends.
“I talk to a lot of my songwriting friends who are black, and they’re sold out,” Simon said. “It’s a good thing, and I think it will result in some really amazing work that will hopefully come to life…
“That’s the hope – that we don’t just play dead white Germans as part of classical music subscriptions across the country, that we can include composers of color in the repertoire.”
In January, the Washington Post’s classical music critic named Simon one of 22 composers to watch in 2022, calling him an artist “whose late-earth musical reach resembles a grand panorama of American life.” He is the Kennedy Center Composer-in-Residence and 2021 recipient of the Sphinx Medal of Excellence.
In October, the orchestra plays another of his works, the sinister but beautiful “An Elegy: A Cry From the Grave”.
As Vice President of the Kennedy Center and Artistic Director of Social Impact, Joseph himself commissions new work. The center’s “mapping project” has enlisted dozens of artists of color depicting grieving and healing cities, including Minneapolis.
Composer Liz Gre and author Junauda Petrus-Nasah premiered “A Progeny of Perpetual Independence” in March. A reviewer called it a “KO”.
Together, Simon and Joseph created several works, including a short opera, on themes of social justice.
After Floyd’s death and the unrest that followed, Simon received a call from the Minnesota Orchestra, who “wondered how to respond to these tragedies with music and how to use your artistic voice to join the call for change” , as Chairman and CEO. Michelle Miller Burns said so later.
He and Joseph were excited, but nervous.
Part of that was “aesthetic nervousness,” Joseph said, given classical music’s tradition of tension with this contemporary political movement. They were also thinking about how “we, as people who are not from the Twin Cities, could honor the legacy of arts and artistic activism that is present there,” he said.
Simon’s parents are pastors, he noted, and the composer sees his artistic work in a similar light – as a service.
“We don’t want to write an article in a vacuum that doesn’t benefit anyone,” Simon said. “This piece, and music in general, serves the community.”