Columbus conductor and clarinetist Antoine Clark wants women musicians and musicians of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to be heard.
Clark is bringing his vision to the McConnell Arts Center Chamber Orchestra’s (MACCO) 2019-20 Masterworks series, Amplified: Do More than Listen, Hear Our Voices. The focus of the series’ three concerts – Voices Past and Present, Voices of Hope and Voices of Freedom – will be on works by women composers and composers of color, all presented alongside works by major composers of the classical music canon.
Clark, who serves as artistic and music director of the McConnell Arts Center Chamber Orchestra in Worthington, conducts around the state of Ohio and serves on the faculties of Kenyon College and Ohio Wesleyan University, is a fellow of the Chicago Sinfonietta’s Project Inclusion Conducting Freeman Fellowship Program, which seeks to eliminate institutional bias along the lines of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic background from classical music ensembles.
Part of that work involves programming music by women composers, composers of color and composers of diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
“Being a part of that program helped me to understand that, if no one else is doing this, then it really should fall on me, a person of color, to really promote these voices,” Clark said in a recent phone interview. “I felt, as an African American, that I should be one who could really help support those voices that are not being heard in the classical community.”
MACCO will present Voices Past and Present on Nov. 24, featuring music by present-day composer Jennifer Jolley alongside works by three well-known composers of the Classical era.
“The idea is to show that, even in the past, we’ve had voices that we need to know more about, and in the present we need to be aware of the voices that are now…and how these generations intermingle and influence each other,” Clark said.
The concert will begin with a symphony by Joseph Boulogne, an influential black composer, conductor and violinist working in Paris during the time of Mozart and Haydn, then end with one of Haydn’s Paris symphonies.
“Boulogne was actually instrumental in helping to commission the Paris symphonies of Haydn, and he was the person to premiere those works,” Clark said.
Between those two symphonies, Clark will conduct the Ohio premiere of Spielzeug Straßenbahn (Toy Trolley) by Jennifer Jolley, and Hummel’s Bassoon Concerto in F with soloist Betsy Sturdevant. Jolley was formerly on the faculty of Ohio Wesleyan University, and Sturdevant is currently Principal Bassoonist with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra.
In MACCO’s Feb. 9 performance, Clark and the orchestra perform music by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Florence B. Price, George Walker and Beethoven. Voices of Hope is a program that highlights the challenges some composers of varying backgrounds have had to overcome.
“Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel and Florence B. Price had to contend with the prevailing attitude in their lives that women didn’t belong on the concert stage, at least as composers,” Clark said.
“From what we know about Fanny Mendelssohn, she was highly engaged in music making and doing salons in their Berlin home and putting on concerts as a pianist. So she really did want to have this life and, happily, she was actually published later in her life.”
MACCO will perform Mendelssohn-Hensel’s Overture in C and also the Violin Concerto No. 1 by African-American composer Florence B. Price, with Louisville Orchestra Concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz as soloist.
The first black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra, Price nevertheless struggled to get her works performed.
“Price felt, as a black woman, that she wasn’t given any attention,” Clark said, “and she expressed this to the famous conductor Serge Koussevitzky in a letter explaining that, but for her race and her gender, she might have had more of a chance to put her music out there.”
Clark and MACCO will perform the Lyric for Strings by George Walker, the first African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, and will also showcase Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, a work Beethoven composed under the painful realization that his hearing loss would likely be permanent and would eventually be total.
Columbus composer Mark Lomax’s First Symphony, “Uhuru,” was the inspiration for the theme of MACCO’s May 3, 2020 performance, Voices of Freedom. That program also features the world premiere of a commissioned work by Columbus composer Linda Kernohan, along with works by William Grant Still and Beethoven.
“’Uhuru,’ means freedom,” Clark said, “and so that made me think about freedom as a topic. How do different cultures – or composers – express through music the idea of freedom?”
The Scherzo from African American composer William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony is pulled from a work that Still linked directly to freedom.
“Still didn’t use any programmatic writings for the piece, but later he attached a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar which was called ‘An Ante-Bellum Sermon.’ And really it just details the freedom, the joy that blacks felt after the Emancipation,” Clark said.
Still’s Summerland is a graceful and evocative musical depiction of the soul’s freedom when the body dies.
Linda Kernohan’s new work, A World in Which Such Beauty Exists, reflects her freedom from depression, an illness that does not discriminate and that affects millions around the world – often to tragic consequences.
“It just occurred to me that this is my struggle, and it’s important to talk about these kinds of things. And I thought, I have to tell my story” said Kernohan. “I wanted to do something that was really close to my heart, given that it’s all such important material that I’m honored to be next to on this program.”
In an era in which major U.S. orchestras are famously squeamish about straying too far away from the meat-and-potatoes of classical music – Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schumann – more than fifty percent of the works on MACCO’s 2019-20 Masterworks series were composed by women and people of color.
Such programming suggests that works by composers of diverse backgrounds can happily coexist on concert programs with works from the classical music canon – if given the chance.
“I think those who are responsible for programming, be it the board or music directors, have to trust the audiences,” Clark said. “I think often people are afraid to program works that they feel the audience don’t know about, composers who they may not know about. And I think it’s possible to find interesting voices to pair with repertoire that we hold dear to our hearts.”
All MACCO Masterworks performances are on Sundays at 3 p.m. in the Bronwynn Theatre of the McConnell Arts Center in Worthington.