The following story was written by Vanderbilt student and Scene intern Cayla Mackey.
This past weekend, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra performed a program that some say made little sense. The three pieces included Mozart’s Concerto for Piano No. 20, Copland’s Symphony No. 3, and a piece called Dancers, Dreamers and Presidents by contemporary composer Daniel Bernard Roumain (DBR). Together, these works span centuries of musical history and don’t seem to be connected — at first glance. The apparently strange amalgamation could be partially due to rescheduling conflicts stemming from the lingering effects of the Nashville flood nearly two years ago, and partially due to what may be a more significant and intentional trend. Intentionally or unintentionally, the program is an indicator of progress in the world of classical music, Nashville, and greater society as a whole.
This collection of pieces features artists who are historically left out of classical music: anyone who isn’t a white male. Now take another look at the program from this past weekend: the Nashville premiere of a classical piece by a Haitian-American, a piano concerto performed by a female soloist, and a symphony written by a gay Jewish man, all conducted by the NSO’s associate conductor, Kelly Corcoran. Lights should be going off.
Yes, women have been heavily involved in classical music. But they have not been consistently accepted. For example, controversy still surrounds Mozart’s purportedly equally gifted older sister, Maria Anna (nicknamed Nannerl), for whom success was not possible due to gender. (For more information, read the book or watch the movie Mozart’s Sister.) Here’s a brief update on the struggle of women in classical music: In 1997, the Vienna Philharmonic was the last major orchestra in the world to admit a woman into its ranks, with much resistance; as of 2006, there were only two women in the world leading major orchestras; as of 2005, 26 percent of players in the top 50 orchestras in the world were women.
The progress of racial minorities is less documented, but take one look at any orchestra and the lack of diversity is immediately obvious. People who are not white are historically hard to come by in classical music, though they do exist. One fascinating example is Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, aka “Black Mozart,” who was left out of the spotlight as Mozart’s black contemporary. Roy “Futureman” Wooten of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones is currently resurrecting this account through his Black Mozart Ensemble project. The lack of diversity in orchestras also led to the creation of the Sphinx Commissioning Consortium, which aims to bring music by black and Latino composers to the concert hall, and which commissioned DBR to write Dancers, Dreamers and Presidents.
Additionally, Maestro Corcoran is not just another “chick with a stick,” the common orchestral parlance for women conductors. She follows in the tradition of Nadia Boulanger, Aaron Copland’s instructor and the first woman to conduct many major orchestras in America and Europe. Corcoran played a markedly transformative role in the brilliant performance of all three pieces, culminating in a captivating rendition of Copland’s third symphony. An especially gifted conductor, she seemed to float effervescently on the podium as she lead the Grammy Award-winning orchestra through virtuosic transitions and sonic flights. She, more than anyone else onstage, served to re-create the moment of dance that inspired the first piece.
DBR’s Dancers, Dreamers and Presidents was inspired by the moment when Barack Obama danced onstage with Ellen DeGeneres during her show the year before he was elected president. The symbolically charged instance in which a mixed-race man danced with a gay white woman on national television was enthralling to the composer. For each second of the 21-second dance, he composed a minute of hip-hop symphony. In the same spirit of DBR’s recent full-length work Symphony for the Dance Floor, this piece is all about the groove. It’s club dance music with substance. All three movements named in the title hinge on beats played by drum set, a foreigner to the symphony hall stage. And the first movement begins with timpani. A timpani solo is relatively unheard of, and even more rare is a piece beginning with a timpani solo. But percussion is important here and takes center stage. As DBR explains, “Everything has to do with the beat. The beat of the heart. The beat of the city.”
The first movement, “Dancers,” demonstrates a commanding understanding of both contemporary dance music and traditional orchestral composition, alternating between loud and soft sections. In the loud sections, pounding beats and punctuated brass syncopation electrify the air. The slow sections illuminate lyrical conversations between different sections of the orchestra, drawing from contrapuntal writing. It is here that DBR’s compositional prowess is evident, particularly his use of varied and textured voicings. At one point, the piece diminuendos into a playful bubbling of strings before a crescendo into a silence where xylophone tickles the main dance theme into re-emergence. Finally, the two elements — loud and soft — are mixed in a volatile sonic reaction that boils over into cacophony.
“Dreamers” extrapolates on the darkly pensive theme introduced in the lyrical subsections of the first movement. Dreamers are people who design different realities, realities that transcend undesirable current conditions. The dissonant risings of the harmonized melodic breaths seem to call out in anguish from the depths of the soul of the orchestra. Rescued only by the entrance of the dance beat, the audience is once again afloat on the turbulent emotions of the composer. Not even the tinkling triangle can save you from falling beneath the waves, which close above you in the gong’s mighty crash.
“Presidents” is welcomed on a warm bed of sound. The synthesizer signals the presidential procession. A slow groove sets in, and the strings come back in with the initial theme from the previous movements. Elaborate harmonic progressions color the air over lo-fi dub beats on the kit. A rondo of string wails calls the beat back into the music, and the brass section echoes. This is the triumphant battle cry, an indicator of progress, an optimistic heralding of the future.
This isn’t your Top 40 techno dance music. Dancers, Dreamers and Presidents has something to say. Conversations between different sections of the orchestra communicate between dance rhythms that make some members of the audience bob their heads, and hopefully inspire actual conversation. Regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation, we can all dance together, make music together, and live together as equals. Look at what’s already been achieved — we now have a mixed-race president and Haitian-American classical composer. At least this is the implication.
DBR, a graduate of the Blair School of Music, makes a definitive statement. But so does the rest of the program. Take a look at the art for the promotion of this concert (above): a collage of Aaron Copland, portrayed emerging from a disguise as Mozart, lifting Mozart’s powdered wig off his head with a conductor’s baton as his own trademark glasses fall into place. The artist, Wayne Brezinka, also made a similar collage of Obama. Both Copland and Obama dominated worlds once closed off to them. Even the artwork used to brand the program packages it tightly as a subtly subversive statement of diversity’s struggle and eventual triumph in classical music.
On another level, the acceptance of new classical works is also a theme here. As DBR said in his introductory address on Thursday night, “All of this music was one contemporary music.” Pieces that were not initially celebrated eventually found their way into the classical music canon. Take, for example, Brahm’s first piano concerto, which was featured by the NSO in February. When it premiered in 1859, it was basically booed offstage, which resulted in Brahms stating, "I am only experimenting and feeling my way. All the same, the hissing was rather too much."
DBR’s highly experimental style is new to classical music, and may result in audiences taking to it rather slowly. But what is the point of art, if not to push the limits? Before Gershwin, jazz was music of the street gutter; before Béla Fleck, the banjo was for the rural poor. DBR is breaking down the walls of classical music through the introduction of hip-hop and dance to the symphony hall. Using his once-in-a-generation compositional talent, he is championing the coexistence of people through the coexistence of music. DBR is revitalizing classical music, bringing it down from its podium into relevancy again.
Despite the exciting and refreshing program, the audience reception was underwhelming. As Dana Kopp Franklin noted on Country Life Friday, political undertones may have had something to do with the tepid audience response. This may be true, but the big idea goes much deeper.
Since symphonies are dependent on donor funds, and since many symphonies are struggling financially, symphony boards may be unwilling to take risks nowadays. They have to connect with corporate and donor communities and members in the audience. Nashville is still relatively conservative, especially regarding patronage of the arts. With tact and consistency, the NSO treads lightly toward the future.
Most importantly, the featuring of Dancers, Dreamers and Presidents is a step toward classical music embracing younger audiences. When symphonies feature more relevant and contemporary music, young people become more interested in classical music, which is crucial for the art form’s survival. Young people are the future of the orchestra: They can buy tickets now, despite being young; they are the future patrons of the arts and the future musicians and composers.
I saw more young people at these performances than at any other NSO performance I have attended in the past four years, not including the Pied Piper Series, which is targeted at children. The second time I heard this piece, I attended with two 14-year-olds. Not usual attendees to the symphony, they fell asleep during the final two performances — but about the first performance, they said, “That was really cool!” The NSO needs to do pieces like Dancers, Dreamers and Presidents more often. It may be what keeps the organization afloat as orchestras around the country flounder.
As DBR said Thursday night, “This is a wonderful opportunity for us to consider what it means to have a conversation. I thank you and I thank this world-class ensemble for allowing this piece to be played in the way, in this house, in this time. It means so much to mean and I hope it means so much to you.” Thank you, DBR.