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Music of Black liberation and experience with conductor Leslie B. Dunner

Leslie Dunner conducts the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra in May 2022
Interlochen Center for the Arts
Leslie Dunner conducts the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra in May 2022

The Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra conductor discusses the two unprecedented programs of music by Black composers he'll lead in March with the New York Philharmonic.

It's a bit of an understatement to say that Leslie B. Dunner is a trailblazing conductor.

He has conducted dozens of world premieres of pieces by Black composers, including Steven M. Allen's "The Poet: A Chamber Opera of Life and Times of Paul Laurence Dunbar" and Nkeiru Okoye’s “Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom.”

Dunner also conducted the world premiere performance of the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera "The Central Park Five" by Anthony Davis.

In addition, Dunner has been at the helm of world premiere recordings of music by Black composers including Florence Price and Mary D. Watkins.

In March, Dunner will lead the musicians of the New York Philharmonic and the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra in two programs of music by Black composers.

IPR spoke with Dunner about these two innovative programs, including a piece-by-piece tour of the four works that the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra will perform in David Geffen Hall on March 3.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Amanda Sewell: The Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra is performing in David Geffen Hall on March 3rd. The four pieces on the program are individually very powerful, and then as a set, it's just a really remarkable. How did you decide what, what pieces to put together for this?

Leslie Dunner: Trey Devey [President of Interlochen Center for the Arts] and I worked together on this, trying to find the right kind of theme for the program. The New York Philharmonic's theme for this year is Black Liberation, so we took that as the motivation. The Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra's program focuses on four living black composers of different styles and different genders [Valerie Coleman, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Mary Watkins and John Wineglass].

AS: Each of these four pieces has such a different representation of the Black experience. Let's talk through each of them, starting with Valerie Coleman's "Umoja." This is becoming a pretty canonic piece, especially for the wind chamber players.

LD: Originally this was a work that she wrote for voices, and then for woodwind quintet, because she played in the Imani Winds quintet. And then she received a commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra, and she redid the piece. She made it longer - more than twice the original length - and incorporated more concepts to represent not only unity, which is what "umoja" means in Swahili, but also to represent some of the struggles that have happened for African Americans.

AS: And it's just so catchy, too.

LD: It is. It's a beautiful little tune, just really very bouncy.

AS: It's like a Kwanzaa anthem.

LD: That's exactly what it is. The audiences can go away humming it to themselves, they can sing it to their kids, they can use it as a lullaby. It's got all sorts of practical uses.

AS: Also on the program is a piece by Interlochen alumnus Jonathan Bailey Holland. It's called "Equality," and it's based on poetry of Maya Angelou.

LD: It's a very dark piece in many ways. It doesn't make any specific references to slavery, but there is an inference in the way Angelou uses "I" and "you." It's speaking from the perspective of being the person who is unequal and talking to another person who sees the unequal person as less than themselves. They're saying, "You need to see me. You need to recognize me. With equality, I am free. Equality and I will be free."

AS: And this is a piece for orchestra with a narrator reading the Angelou poem.

LD: We're using two students to narrate. The orchestration while the narration happens is quite dense, quite forceful, and quite repetitive because again in the poetry, Maya Angelou refers to the rhythm that is unbroken and unyielding.

AS: There are a lot of musical references in the poem itself, and even "equality and I will be free" is a refrain throughout the poem.

LD: Right.

AS: The performances I've heard of this have just one narrator. Why did you decide to do two?

LD: I wanted our audience to see not just one side of the Black experience. I wanted the audience to recognize that we have the male Black experience and the female Black experience. Within the context of the poetry, I believe that both are really referenced. And I want that to come through for our audiences from both perspectives.

AS: Another piece that the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra is playing on this concert is one that you have a pretty long relationship with, "Soul of Remembrance" by Mary Watkins. It's one of the Five Movements in Color, and you made the first recording of this piece.

LD: That's correct. At the time of the recording (2010), Mary Watkins and I talked about "Soul of Remembrance" as something that is reflective on the Black experience. Now within the context of the current program, I want to talk with her more deeply, especially as we relate to the struggle of Black people coming from Africa through the Middle Passage and then having to deal with life here, and how we as current African Americans are reflecting on what has happened.

AS: "Remembrance" in the context of this piece is remembering a lot of different time periods and events that, that have shaped the the contemporary Black experience.

LD: When I recorded the piece (with the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble in 2010), I talked with my harpist about what kind of sound I wanted and how I wanted the harp to fit within every single beat. I started to think about the "soul of remembrance" from the standpoint of the African harp. A couple of years ago, the Interlochen Arts Academy students performed a work by William Grant Still called "Ennanga," which is a Kenyan word for an African harp. [see performance below] Suddenly the melody has a different meaning to me.

AS: It's a real African diaspora kind of sense, going back to the actual West African harp playing.

LD: That what's so important to me for these concerts that the students are playing in New York. I really want them to start from the inception of freedom, of liberation. One cannot have liberation without having had something that was lost. And we need to recognize what was lost.

Yellow bag of rice that says Carolina Gold Rice Plantation

AS: That concept of the diaspora really comes across in the fourth piece on this program, "Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked: Requiem for Rice.” Here, we're talking about rice farmers and rice fields, first in West Africa and then in the American South.

LD: I did the world premiere of this piece as well (in 2019). When I started to look at this piece, I thought back to my childhood. Although my family was not on welfare, we knew many people who were, and there was something called Carolina Rice. It came in 20-pound bags. And all of the families that received welfare would get a bag of 20 pounds of Carolina Rice. If we think back to the original colonies before the thirteen, before North Carolina and South Carolina, there was one Carolina, and that was where the slaves were taken.

Rice was the industry that made the original colonies rich before cotton was king. Growing rice is very labor intensive. The Low Country was very, very hot and was probably more like jungle than it is now. Sickness was something that was endemic because of mosquitoes. It would've been miserable. And yet that is what created the wealth, the early wealth of the colonies.

AS: The academic in me loves this because it was a professor discovery about how her own family history related to her research. Professor Edda Fields-Black discovered that her own enslaved ancestors worked and died in these very rice fields. And so, in a very sort of academic way, she set out to create this whole multimedia experience of not only her family's history, but also the history of the other enslaved people in these rice fields in the American South.

LD: There are also two narrators for this work. The second movement is where the narrators discuss what their experience is like, and the composer [John Wineglass] changes gears in terms of musical style. It's no longer a piece that has flowing melodies and rich harmonies. It's about creating a sound palette to help represent what's happening.

AS: And here Wineglass draws together the very European concert hall tradition of the Requiem Mass with West African funerary traditions as well. It's this idea of communicating with the souls of the departed so that they can finally be laid to rest peacefully.

LD: In the last movement, there's the effect of having a spiritual hymn. From my standpoint, it is us living now who are paying homage to those who came before us. We are offering our respect to them in the form of this orchestral prayer.

AS: It's wild because, as you said, the folks who were getting the government Carolina rice are descendants of the people who created that industry and died for it.

LD: I would love for this work to be played in more locations where there are people who have relatives from the South so that they can connect with their past. Many people are not going to recognize the industry that existed because what we talk about nowadays is cotton. Those who were involved in the industry, who died, who might have been left in the swamps - we will never know. Hopefully audiences will get some recognition for themselves and get a sense of that legacy.

AS: Even here in 2023, it's so unusual to have an orchestral program of all living composers, let alone all living Black composers.

LD: And that will be very exciting because the New York Philharmonic has not played any of these works.

AS: It's boggling to me that the New York Philharmonic has not played any of these works, or a program of works like these.

LD: The other program that I'm doing [conducting the New York Philharmonic in a program of music by Black composers William Grant Still, Adolphus Hailstork, Courtney Bryan and Tazewell Thompson], none of those works has the New York Philharmonic played.

AS: I was reading an interview with composer Jonathan Bailey Holland, where he was talking about the push in recent years to diversify the repertoire that a lot of orchestras are playing. He observed that they're all kind of doing the same rep in the same ways, and how is that really that diversified when all an orchestra is doing is sticking in a Florence Price symphony every so often. How diverse is it really? And what kinds of new voices and experiences are being brought to the table?

LD: I think the motivation for a lot of inclusion of repertoire by more people who have had lesser voices in the classical canon, are two movements: Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. These two events happening almost side by side has really galvanized our country to recognize that we need to do something better. And so there is inclusion all at once. The things that the ensembles are presenting are what they have learned are comfortable, and so that's why people are doing the same things, all the time, everywhere.

This program is offering something different than that. We have a commission on my program with the New York Philharmonic [by Courtney Bryan and Tazewell Thompson], and I am bringing in elements of authentic African culture. I am hopeful that we have a sense of cultural immersion for a predominantly European American audience, that will help them to recognize that there are other things that are really good.

AS: When you propose these types of programs or programming, do you get pushback?

LD: There's lots of pushback.

AS: Can you talk about types of pushback that you get?

LD: Some of the pushback is with trying to figure out what combinations of works to do so that it is one, playable, and two, marketable. So there is a fine balance that one has to find and sometimes one has to make compromises in order to get the overall message across.

AS: Because you want people to experience the music, but you want them to buy a ticket to come to experience it.

LD: Right.

AS: Selling them an unfamiliar and perhaps even uncomfortable experience is challenging.

LD: It can be. We have something called creature comfort, and there is something that's also called in this business, "the hook." We have to find the hook that satisfies creature comforts.

AS: Because who's going to go to a concert that's going to immerse me in discomfort?

LD: It's sold out.

AS: Really?

LD: It has garnered lots of interests because of its diversity. The promotion has been positive promotion. It's focused on the music and not on the race.

AS: I've been reading that even the Metropolitan Opera is selling more tickets to operas by [living composers] Kevin Puts and Terrence Blanchard than they are to some Verdi operas.

LD: People want art by living composers that's more relevant to their experiences. When I conducted the premiere of Anthony Davis's opera "The Central Park Five," Anthony said, "We have voices that have not yet been heard. We have stories that have not yet been told." Audiences are starting to recognize, "Wow, you know what? The world that we live in is really interesting."

People who are creating art can find a way of taking that current interest and put it into a perspective that is relevant to the history of everything that comes before them. Then everything that the audience goes to is exciting. There's something that is familiar, but something that is still unfamiliar to be discovered, and that's the beauty of what we're creating.

Leslie Dunner will conduct the New York Philharmonic on March 2 and March 4 in David Geffen Hall. He will also conduct the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra in a side-by-side concert with members of the New York Philharmonic on March 3. Tickets are still available for the March 2 and March 4 concerts.

Dr. Amanda Sewell is IPR's music director.