Festival promotes African-American classical works

Jessye Norman will perform in a gala concert to close the Atlanta Music Festival. (James Alexander)
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Jessye Norman will perform in a gala concert to close the Atlanta Music Festival. (James Alexander)

More than a century ago, a small cohort of African-American classical music lovers desperately wanted to hear a touring group from the Metropolitan Opera sing during a rare Atlanta performance. As the story goes, the group considered dressing up as servants to slip into the segregated concert.

Whether or not the costume change actually occurred, the patrons were turned away from the performance. When Henry Hugh Proctor, the pastor of First Congregational Church of Atlanta, heard about the rejection, he started a musical movement, sponsoring a series of inclusive concerts showcasing African-American performers.

The Atlanta Music Festival, a descendant of Proctor’s concerts, aims to create a larger audience for classical music performed and composed by African-Americans.

Artistic Director Dwight Andrews, senior minister at First Congregational Church and an associate professor of music at Emory University, began the concerts anew 15 years ago with Music Director Steve Darcy. Andrews said he sees the Atlanta Music Festival as an extension of those early performances.

“It seemed like a natural next step” to build on that legacy, he said. “It has become quite a big and extraordinary event for the entire community.”

This year’s festival, running Nov. 14-18, has artist workshops, educational master classes, panel sessions on race relations and a star-studded gala concert.

The week-ending gala at Glenn Memorial Auditorium on Emory’s campus will feature operatic soprano Jessye Norman, Atlanta-based tenor Timothy Miller, glee clubs from Morehouse and Spelman colleges, the Meridian Chorale and the Vega String Quartet. Musicians also will debut a commissioned work by Adolphus Hailstork that includes a narration based on President Barack Obama’s writings.

The point of the commission is to bring a “new work to bear that speaks to the present and hopefully the future of the nation,” Andrews said.

For Andrews, introducing fresh music into the classical lexicon is an important aspect of the overall Atlanta Music Festival mission.

“It’s not just a re-creation of something that’s already on the shelf,” he said. “With this festival, not only will we have a great performance of existing literature, but now we have set in motion the creation of a new piece that hopefully will be performed again and again and again.”

The rich African-American tradition in classical music and opera is usually overshadowed by jazz music, and Andrews has made a concerted effort not to introduce the latter genre into his programming. The Atlanta Music Festival is about giving African-American artists a performance space for classical music, and deviations from that outlook would dilute the event’s purpose, he said.

While he’s staying true to his mission, Andrews said it’s also important for other artistic venues around the city to present classical music performed and composed by African-Americans. In an October concert, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Assistant Conductor Joseph Young presented “Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula” by James Lee III.

Hearing an African-American conductor lead the orchestra through a contemporary composition by an African-American composer boosts visibility for African-American classical music, Andrews said.

“All efforts going in that same direction ultimately yield the result we want,” Andrews said. “It can’t be one effort or one act, it has to be a multiple-pronged attack.”

Music education is a large component of that attack, he said. The Atlanta Music Festival encompasses music classes and history lessons to educate the classical audiences of the future, while the gala celebration is targeted at their parents.

One of the most remarkable events during the week happens at noon Nov. 16 at Ebenezer Baptist Church. During the concert, 500 children from around Atlanta will take part in what has become a festival tradition — performing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Andrews said the concert is about more than simply performing a tune. He’s focused on teaching young children the meaning behind the words. To that end, the burgeoning musicians have been studying the piece in their classrooms, learning the song’s history and its place in American culture.

“In addition to being noisy, the excitement is palpable. It’s electric,” Andrews said of previous performances. For him, any momentary cacophony is a small price to pay for the associated educational opportunities. “And you don’t forget the words once you know where they came from.”

Andrews said the event, which started its second life at First Congregational Church and moved to Emory about two years ago, also has grown in stature as its budget has increased. Every event builds on the previous festival, and he works to create a larger presentation each successive year.

“We’re trying to get every living and breathing person that’s interested in arts and community,” he said. “We’re hoping that we continue to change the American perspective on its own art and culture — we want everyone to be a part of that.”

PREVIEW

Atlanta Music Festival. Nov. 14-18. Venues at Emory University, First Congregational Church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Georgia State University. Most events free. Gala concert 7 p.m. Nov. 18. $18-$25. Glenn Memorial Auditorium, 1652 N. Decatur Road, Atlanta. Full schedule at atlantamusicfestival.org/images/amf-week-schedule.pdf.