Sunday, January 23, 2011
They've been playing in the background of our national life through the Arts for decades and have probably moved us further along the path of reconciliation among people of different races than all of the speeches of all of the great orators over all of the centuries. These "conversations" (i.e. "the Kirov Ballet meets Alvin Ailey," and "Ray Charles with strings plays Carnegie Hall) have moved past novelty into the creation of new art forms in music and dance to delighted audiences throughout the world. The "Black voice" as Dvorak described it -- is so powerfully and deeply infused in all of America's popular music that we may have forgotten its origins or appreciated its contribution to the very definition of what is uniquely American in our music; or the culture of pain and anguish; the unbounded joy and deep sorrow; the struggles which produced it.
Over the past few years I've been flirting with chamber music -- and finding myself yielding to its magic but always suspecting that "... a little Mingus on bass and Max Roach or "Philly" Joe Jones on percussion -- maybe Miles with a muted riff now and again..." might improve Haydn a bit (grin!). But over time my resistance gave way to a genuine appreciation for the genre, even while secretly wishing that my greater love, jazz, might one day be seen as equally classical music. It was the violas playing Mozart and cellos playing Villa-lobos, especially, or almost anything else, that won me over in the end.
Next Saturday evening I will attend the opening concert of the Gold Coast Chamber Players in Lafayette, California -- a place located within a comfortable hike from the home we built in the 50s -- the place that was so life-changing for our family in a tumultuous time in our nation's history --- ten years or so before the Civil Rights Revolution of the Sixties, and long before we gave up the less than welcoming suburbs and retreated back to a more comfortable anonymity of a racially and culturally diverse life in the city; a debt owed to our children once they reached adolescence.
The Gold Coast Chamber Players are bringing Lafayette its first observance of Black History Month -- in a place where perhaps one percent of the population is other than white. Not only that, but the artistic director and my dear friend, Pamela Freund-Striplen, is bringing together her favorite composer, Antonin Dvorak, with brilliant African American baritone, Lawrence Beamen, in concert. Not only those two giants from different centuries and races, but also included in the program will be the work of William Grant Still, a noted African America composer from another era.
... and I will be appropriately-clad in my conservative black crepe suit with pearls -- to be (with other volunteers) greeting the music lovers upon arrival and pressing programs into their hands. And, I may be the only person in the room who realizes just how far we have all had to come in order for this to be an ordinary social event, or of how much change over how many years was necessary for any of this to even begin to be normal.
This weekend's "conversation" between Mr. Beamen and Mr. Dvorak across the ages may enable those of Diablo Valley residents to deepen. They've already had their effect upon me in that these conversations are more often being engaged in from the same side of the racial barrier, finally, and being less often shouted across chasms of hatred and acrimony. But this may be more true in this part of the country. Overall, there is still much work to be done, but Lafayette is taking the necessary steps toward fulfillment of the promise, " ...in order to form a more perfect Union".
Do watch this amazing 34 year-old "Robeson" in this interview. He was born in Mississippi but raised in Richmond, California (my town). His youth doesn't permit him to comprehend the distance we've all traveled since his grandparents back home were expected to step off the curb and into the gutter when encountering a white person on the pathway -- and never to make eye contact without threat of harm. And where hardly anyone would have known his last name -- surnames were for whites, only. Mister Beamen? Never!
But that's a conversation for another time ... .