A wide and impressive array of activities occurred across the U.S. this year during the nation’s first federal observance of the Juneteenth holiday.
But one unique celebration, which took place on The Patio Stage at Strathmore in North Bethesda on June 19, honored the contributions of four Black composers, none of whom have yet to receive the recognition and respect they’ve so long deserved.
Under the direction of their capable conductor, Artistic Director Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez, the New Orchestra of Washington (NOW) presented “Juneteenth Celebration: Lift Every Voice!”
The hourlong concert, held on a newly-built, outdoor pavilion, marked the first live audience performance for NOW since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For most of the audience, the evening served as an introduction to the music and stories behind some of the most talented African-American composers from the past and present, including works by George Walker, Jessie Montgomery, William Grant Still (often referred to as the “Dean of Black Composers”) and Florence Price.
Hernandez-Valdez spoke to The Washington Informer after the concert and shared his hopes for the future.
“For some of my colleagues, this was their first time performing before a live audience in over a year – and it’s been a wonderful opportunity for them to experience,” he said. “Perhaps, now that the pandemic is hopefully behind us, others will realize what we as musicians have always known – music is as essential to humankind as water or air.”
“We believe in the transformative power of music to bring us closer and connect us to one another, an experience only made richer by the variety of our backgrounds. Our society is deeply hurt by racial and economic injustice, with politics and the pandemic exacerbating this pain. We hope that our Lift Every Voice concert provided a place for dialogue and discovery, understanding and connection,” he said.
Two friends and members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., both Black women and professionals who live and work in the greater Washington area, said they had never heard of the composers prior to attending the event.
But they promised to tell as many of their friends as possible.
“I’ve already reached out to my colleagues and told them about the wonderful music that I enjoyed during the concert – music written by Black composers whom I previously knew nothing about,” said Sabrina Mays-Diagne, an attorney, mother and D.C. native now living in Herndon with her husband and two of their three children.
“This was my first time attending a classical music concert and what a treat for it to be one which introduced me to the works of four Black composers,” she said. “Like most people, I know the works of the more-celebrated composers like Bach and Beethoven. But their work always seemed a bit cold and distant to me.”
“But with the pieces I heard, all tremendously performed by the orchestra, I felt something different. This music touched me. I felt connected to the composers and I loved it,” she said.
“My daughter, now a junior in college, played the cello during her matriculation in both junior and senior high schools but I never knew about Florence Price, Jessie Montgomery or William Grant Still,” said Pamela Christian-Wilson, a resident of Loudon County and a member of the management team for a law firm with offices located around the world.
“The orchestra played the music to perfection,” she said. “I just wish more young people could have been here to experience what I did this evening. It’s not that I have anything against the music that our youth tend to like, like hip-hop or rap. I just believe that Black youth would benefit so profoundly from being exposed to classical music, especially that written by Black men and women.”
“These composers overcame significant obstacles just to do what they felt in their minds, hearts and souls. Everyone needs to know about them, their stories and hear the beautiful works they created. The music was exquisite. I wanted more and I could have stayed there listening for hours,” she said.
New Orchestra of Washington (NOW) was founded in 2012 by rising stars of the local area’s professional community including husband and wife team Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez (artistic director) and Grace Cho (executive director). They represent a one-of-a-kind, genre-bending ensemble, providing a successful framework for chamber and orchestra music in the 21st century. NOW’s mission remains to make music relevant to new generations of audiences through virtuosic performances that combine a range of genres with fresh interpretations of classic works.
For more information, go to www.neworchestraofwashington.org.