Harlem Chamber Players commemorate the Tulsa race massacre and Juneteenth with world premiere of TULSA 1921

United StatesUnited States Various, Pity These Ashes: Tulsa 1921-2021: J’Nai Bridges (mezzo-soprano), Lady Jess (violinist), Ashley Jackson (harp), Terrance McKnight (narrator), Dancers from the Harlem School of the Arts, Harlem Chamber Players / Amadi Azikiwe (conductor), The Herb Alpert Center, Harlem School of the Arts, New York, 10.6.2021. (RP)

Jessie Montgomery – ‘Starburst’

Alice Coltrane – ‘Prema’ for Harp and Strings (arr. Tom Cunningham & Ashley Jackson)

Adolphus Hailstork – TULSA 1921 (Pity These Ashes, Pity This Dust) for Mezzo-Soprano and Chamber Orchestra (world premiere)

Trevor Weston – ‘The People Could Fly’ for Violin solo, Narrator and Strings

I was eager to attend the taping of Pity These Ashes: Tulsa 1921-2021 at the Harlem School of the Arts. When I first posed the question, it was still a bit of a risk to be indoors in a confined space with many people; by the time of the taping in early June, COVID protocols were being relaxed in New York. Nonetheless, everyone in the foyer of HSA – musicians, film crew, staff and a handful of others – was masked unless they needed their mouths to play an instrument or sing.

The concert is set to air without charge on 19 June, or Juneteenth, to commemorate the Tulsa race massacre, which is considered one of the single worst incidents of racial violence in American history. On 31 May and 1 June 1921, mobs of white residents, some deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black residents and destroyed homes and businesses in the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. More than 35 square blocks of the neighborhood were destroyed; at the time, it had been the wealthiest Black community in the US.

The human toll was also high. More than 800 people were admitted to hospital and as many as 6,000 Black residents of Tulsa were interred in a large facility, some for several days, ostensibly for their own safety. Official estimates range from 75 to 300 deaths linked to the massacre. Insurance claims for property damaged were denied, and criminal prosecutions fizzled out. The Tulsa police chief was convicted on two counts, including dereliction of duty during the massacre, and was removed from office. There were no other criminal convictions of note.

Adolphus Hailstork composed TULSA 1921 (Pity These Ashes, Pity This Dust) to a libretto by his long-time collaborator, Dr. Herbert Woodward Martin. The text starts out with a young woman walking through the destruction after the mayhem has subsided. She finds her dying mother, who tells her that the lives of the men they love have been bound to accusations of having raped a white woman, and that nothing can so enrage a white community as that. After her mother dies, the woman walks through the destruction singing, ‘Let’s honor them…and pay homage to their memories and carry on for as long as we are given to strive in this land. We shall endure, and we shall struggle. We should strive on’.

J’Nai Bridges (mezzo-soprano) & Amadi Azikiwe (conductor) © Bob Curtis

TULSA 1921 is scored for mezzo-soprano and chamber orchestra, and the magnificent J’Nai Bridges was the soloist for its world premiere. Bridges brought dramatic intensity and her rich, remarkably even column of sound to bear on the music and the text. She was note-perfect from the start, and it was fascinating to experience her singing with greater vocal and interpretive freedom as the taping progressed.

The solo violin and cello are equal partners with the voice in expressing the searing emotions of the story. In the opening scene, when the woman converses with her dying mother, both voice and cello emerge from the din as one might imagine the moans and shrieks of the citizens of Greenwood sounding as the angry mob descended upon them. When Bridges sang of honoring those who had died, Ashley Horne, concertmaster for the piece, doubled her on the violin, creating a sweeping and eloquent tribute to the Black citizens of Tulsa and the price they paid to live in America.

Ashley Jackson (harp) with the Harlem Chamber Players © Bob Curtis

Alice Coltrane, who was married to the legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, was a composer and performer in her own right, playing the harp, piano and organ. Her well-known work ‘Prema’, which means love or affection in Sanskrit, was heard here in an arrangement for harp and string orchestra. Its most profound passages on this night came when Ashley Jackson played sparkling swirls of sound on the harp to the chordal accompaniment of the strings. Jackson later replicated the effect in the extensive solo that forms the core of the work, which also called on her to created percussive sounds on the harp with her feet.

The dancers from the Harlem School of the Arts were not on hand for this session, but I look forward to seeing them on the stream. Nonetheless, Trevor Weston’s ‘The People Could Fly’ revealed itself to be a work of great beauty, originality and emotional power. It is based on an African-American folktale that tells of slaves rediscovering the ancient magic to fly; this enables them to escape from bondage and the cruel master who whips them mercilessly.

Weston is a master of orchestration and rhythm, which he employs to create the panoply of emotions coursing through the story. Terrence McKnight, the evening host of WQXR, New York’s classical musical station, narrated the tale in his polished, straightforward manner. The extraordinary violinist Lady Jess made a statement as much with her glittering, orange-sequined dress as she did with her eloquent playing. The young mother at the heart of the story flies off to freedom to a light, lifting melody in the violin that radiates hope. It was played to perfection by Lady Jess.

I did not hear Jessie Montgomery’s ‘Starburst’ which was going to be recorded the following morning. The brief, one-movement work for string orchestra was premiered by the Sphinx Virtuosi in 2012, and Montgomery describes it ‘as a play on imagery of rapidly changing musical colors’. There will be plenty of opportunities to hear Montgomery’s music apart from the stream: in July she begins a three-year appointment as the Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

History, of course, is the stuff not only of the past but also of the present. No one could possibly have imagined earlier that this concert would be presented on the day that Juneteenth is to be observed as a national holiday in the US for the first time. For a legislative body that seems to agree on next to nothing, the US Congress acted with lightning speed this past week to make that happen. For its proponents, this official recognition of the day on which slavery ended in America was a long time coming, but it is a reminder of the words that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke shortly before he was murdered in 1968: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’.

Rick Perdian

For more information on Pity These Ashes: Tulsa 1921-2021, click here.

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