Big audience expected for 'An African American Requiem'
It's a major work, and it could receive a large following, which makes Damien Geter both anxious and excited for the world premiere of his "An African American Requiem" to be staged at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall at 6 p.m. Saturday, May 7.
"My stomach stays in a constant state of butterflies," he said.
Geter, a composer and singer, examines through music and some written word the 400 years of racial violence inflicted on Black Americans — from slavery to lynchings to shootings of Black individuals "senselessly." It was written in memory of Black Americans who have lost their lives and aims to evaluate and reframe the Black experience in America.
It was a project conceived five years ago and expected to be put on stage in 2020 — after the George Floyd killing — but the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the requiem from happening.
In recent years, the political rhetoric and racial violence led Geter to think, "Enough is enough, when is this going to actually stop? I wanted to use my composition voice as an act not of protest but to make a statement about violence against Black Americans."
Geter has been in Portland for seven years, originally taking a teaching job at Catlin Gabel School after previously living in Virginia. He also works as interim music director and artistic adviser for Portland Opera.
He hopes "An African American Requiem" can help people learn, appreciate and understand the struggle with racial violence against Black Americans.
"As a Black composer in today's America, I feel like I've been writing this my entire life," he said. "I was hoping there would be a time we wouldn't need this piece, but I think we always will. I hope 'An African American Requiem' leads to important action that affects change."
Resonance Ensemble and Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon have backed Geter, commissioning the project, and Oregon Symphony stepped up to play some of the music.
The show features musicians from around Oregon, including the African American Requiem Choir, as well as four opera singers — soprano Brandie Sutton, mezzo-soprano Karmesha Peake, tenor Bernard Holcomb and baritone Kenneth Overton.
The piece also includes African American spirituals, texts from civil rights activists Ida B. Wells and Jamilia Land, a movement dedicated to Eric Garner's famous last words "I can't breathe" (which also became part of Floyd's story), another segment recognizing children who have been killed, and the poem by Antwon Rose "I am confused and afraid." The final movement includes words penned and performed by African American poet S. Renee Mitchell.
"Music has the power to inspire, educate and heal," said Scott Showalter, president and CEO of the Oregon Symphony. "It has been an honor to work with Damien and Resonance Ensemble to bring such a relevant and meaningful project to our community that will hopefully serve as a catalyst for action."
Said FitzGibbon: "In 2017, when we commissioned 'An African American Requiem,' we had no idea the path we were about to embark on. It is extraordinary and moving, and it's exciting to see how audiences, community partners and arts organizations across the country are coming together to watch his vision come to life."
Indeed, it'll have a national audience. All Classical Portland will broadcast the world premiere on 89.9 FM and online at allclassical.org, and it will be simulcast on WXQR in New York City. All Classical Portland also will syndicate the broadcast for radio stations across the country to share by Juneteenth weekend.
In addition, the piece will be performed with Resonance Ensemble and the Choral Arts Society of Washington at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on May 23, and it'll be recorded for commercial release.
"Kathy FitzGibbon was really instrumental in getting this going," Geter said. "It was her idea to partner with the symphony. Kathy dreams big, and I love that about her. And, here we are.
"And, (All Classical's) Suzanne Nance is a wonder, we love her. The whole partnership has really been phenomenal."
Tickets for "An African American Requiem" are $20 and can be purchased through Oregon Symphony at www.orsymphony.org.
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