New Musical Work By Columbus Composer Celebrates Upper Arlington's Centennial

May 18, 2018

At 100 years old this year, Upper Arlington is a vibrant community of historic homes, impressive schools and enticing shops and restaurants.

As part of the city's centennial celebration, the Upper Arlington High School Orchestra is performing the world premiere of a new musical work commissioned for the student orchestra, honoring Upper Arlington's past and celebrating its present and envisioned future.

Richard Jordan Smoot, a composer and longtime Upper Arlington resident, wrote Golden for harp, percussion and strings. The student orchestra performs Golden for the first time at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 22 at Upper Arlington High School.

Smoot's piece is the first musical work ever commissioned for the student orchestra. Ed and Gretchen Zunic — both Upper Arlington Schools music teachers — extended the commission to Smoot, with funding primarily by the Upper Arlington Orchestra Parents Association.

"The orchestra parents decided with the teachers that we were going to commission a work, and then Richard and I started talking about what it was going to be," Ed Zunic said. "And now we have this incredible piece of music called Golden."

Over a number of conversations, Smoot, Zunic and the parents association determined that their new musical work should celebrate present-day Upper Arlington's vibrancy, while also paying tribute to the city's history.

To that end, an affirmative spirit bursts through many moments of Golden, named after the Upper Arlington Golden Bears, while other moments pause to reflect on a more sobering chapter of the city’s history.

"I wanted to create something that had this kind of majestic, positive, forward-moving spirit," Smoot said. "But at the same time, I wanted to pay tribute to this very important person who had essentially founded Upper Arlington, and that would be Pleasant Litchford."

Pleasant Litchford and the Litchford Cemetery

Zunic had read an announcement in Upper Arlington High School's student newspaper, The Arlingtonian, about a then-recently published book that brought to light a neglected aspect of Upper Arlington’s history.

That book, Secrets Under the Parking Lot: The True Story of Upper Arlington, Ohio, and the History of Perry Township in the Nineteenth Century, by Diane Kelly Runyon and Kim Shoemaker Starr, tells the story of the land that Perry Township and Upper Arlington now occupy and the establishment of the city of Upper Arlington.

A central figure in the story of how Upper Arlington came to be was Pleasant Litchford.

Incorporated in 1918 as a village, Upper Arlington was built on land acquired by sibling real-estate developers Ben and King Thompson. Some of that land had once belonged to Litchford, a former Virginia slave who bought his freedom and, in 1829, settled in Perry Township.

Over many years, Litchford amassed a large quantity of land. He eventually founded a half-acre cemetery there, so that his family, neighbors and other African-Americans in the rural areas around Columbus could have a place in which to be properly buried.

According to Runyon, in the early 1950s, the Upper Arlington Board of Education purchased the plot of land that included the Litchford Cemetery to build a high school on that site. In 1955, the board exhumed and relocated nearly 30 bodies buried there to Union and Greenlawn cemeteries.

But Runyon said in a recent phone interview that it is "very likely" people are still buried in the land of the former Litchford Cemetery, beneath what is now the parking lot of Upper Arlington High School.

"This cemetery opened in about 1830," Runyon said. "Death records in Ohio were not required until, like, the early 1900s. So that's a whole span of time that there are no (burial) records, unless they were in family bibles or some other kind of documentation."

The Zunics read Secrets Under the Parking Lot and decided they wanted Smoot's new musical work to acknowledge this aspect of Upper Arlington's history.

"And so my next text message with Richard (Smoot) was, 'Hey, have you read this book?' " Ed Zunic said.  

The 'Golden' Theme and 'The Pleasant Blues'

With approval from Upper Arlington Schools leadership and the orchestra parents association, Smoot and Zunic proceeded with plans to bring the Pleasant Litchford story into the newly commissioned musical work. Equally important for Upper Arlington's centennial was that the piece have a celebratory feel.

"My piece has from the beginning, per my intention and the intention of the people behind the commission, to be a celebration of the community of Upper Arlington," Smoot said, "and I very much view it that way."

Smoot says the musical structure of Golden reflects what he describes as Upper Arlington's forward-looking feel, acknowledges the painful chapter of those buried in Pleasant Litchford's cemetery and envisions a future in which Arlingtonians move forward with a sober understanding of their community's past.

"There's this opening 'golden' theme, I like to call it," Smoot said of Golden. "As you move into the piece, you eventually get to what is the centerpiece of the work, and that is something I call 'The Pleasant Blues.' And it's a blues that features three of the players in the orchestra, as well as the orchestra itself.

"But the most important thing that I was trying to do," he continued, "was to create this feeling of correcting the past, using music to do it. And so by the end of the piece, we have the 'golden' theme and 'The Pleasant Blues' coming together in what I view as a kind of unification."

Unanswered Questions

For the student musicians in the Upper Arlington High School Orchestra, learning how to play Golden and about the history behind the piece have made for a long journey.

In his role as music teacher, Zunic first worked with the orchestra only on musical matters — playing the correct notes and rhythms, playing each phrase musically — without addressing the history to which Golden responds. As the students came to know the piece, they picked up on its sadness.

"About a month ago, I had kids coming to me saying, 'There are moments of this that sound so sad, and we thought this was supposed to be a celebrative, commemorative-type piece,' " Zunic said.

Then Zunic showed the orchestra the episode of WOSU's Columbus Neighborhoods that features the story of Litchford and interviews with the authors of Secrets Under the Parking Lot.

"There were kids that were in tears at the end (of the viewing)," Zunic said. "I turned on the lights and they were passing around Kleenex. "So the kids get it. I think the parents get it. They know, because we've shared with them since January, the context, which is we're celebrating 100 years — all of the 100 years. And before that 100 years, there was something else that happened. So we're including that in this piece."

Even with a basic knowledge of the facts, the details of the founding of the Litchford Cemetery and the alleged partial exhumation of the people buried there raise many tough questions. As a teacher, Zunic embraces those questions as an important part of the learning process.

"If a piece of music can spark questions, that’s a touchdown for me — whether it's musically speaking or contextually speaking," Zunic said.

Amid questions about the city's history, once Golden premieres May 22, Smoot says he hopes the piece will help Upper Arlington move forward as a community united with its past.

"Moving forward is the desire to want to change in a manner concomitant with good education and good spiritual values, being able to say to ourselves, 'I now understand and think this way and will act accordingly,' " Smoot said. "And I think for a community to do that and to have their value system defined by that kind of a consciousness is a very important endeavor."

The Upper Arlington High School Orchestra, with Ed Zunic conducting, premieres Columbus composer Richard Jordan Smoot's newly commissioned work Golden at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 22 at Upper Arlington High School.