Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

Archive for June 2010


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-doesn’t mean ‘easy work’..

..ask Bernstein!


Written by tomminteroffthestoop

June 29, 2010 at 9:36 AM

opening doors

with 2 comments I stood in the shade of the tree line, trying not to puddle in the 95 degree heat and humidity of this past Saturday, I watched something incredible..

I have always been an advocate of ‘opening doors’ –of finding ways to engage a mind that might not normally be aware or available to some connection of music that I know and love. I don’t ever want to foist this on anyone.. But as I was introduced to the world of music by loving and adventurous souls, I am always pressed to do so as well..

But this Saturday I watched a young man from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts perform a short piano program of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and jazz improvisation.

This same young man is a composer, and had contributed music to a work that was being created by the Duke Ellington School, under the keen eyes of the composer Anthony Davis, called When God Made Lonely. It is an operatic updating of Porgy & Bess. many times –I thought, as I watched-  had someone opened the door, leading us here..?

Classical composition for African Americans is not a hot elective! Generally classical music is considered an ‘elite’ art form –and opera –well.. something even more archaic and ‘white’.

..but doors opened in the minds of many before this instant in time, and once opened, allowed a whole train of passion to connect with words and music and inform another generation of musicians and music lovers..

There was a story I heard, and have little reason to doubt: the Austrian conductor, Erich Leinsdorf, believed in voices. If a voice could work the magic of the music, then it would be the voice he would choose.

In the 60’s Leinsdorf was contracted to RCA; they had committed to doing a Verdi opera series under his direction and had a particular compliment of cast in mind. Leinsdorf looked over their choices, and demurred, firmly. Eventually RCA was… brought, to defer to the maestro’s choices in singers.

This occurred over the casting in the recording of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. The cast which the maestro desired were comprised of the three greatest African American voices of the era: Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett and Reri Grist.

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It remains a classic, and incomparable example of craft.

…does it matter who opens the door..? Personally, I don’t think so.

As my grandmother used to say to my father when he was a young man:

…you sit by that door, and wait for it to open.. And when it does, you be ready to walk through..

Each of us have a hand on the handle to a door that opens onto some landscape we love; each of us, can open that door to others.. and show what makes inside so wonderful..

Each of us are advocates, and can impact anyone waiting outside our door..

threading time..

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In a joint project of 2009, WNO partnered with the Ward 7 Arts Collaborative to collect the oral histories of residents of Ward 7 and record the stream of memories the community holds.

I was hired by the opera company not only to facilitate the recording of the histories but to fashion the questions which would best create conversation and reflection. By the end of the daylong interview process, we felt that we needed more balance from the youth of the neighborhood, and so made another date to head to the Teen Center to collect their side of community.

What emerged in these two sessions was a portrait of a neighborhood under siege and trying to navigate the buckling strains of disillusionment, violence, decimation of local business infrastructure, and the dismal duality of poverty and gentrification.

The Elders of the community felt unheard by both the youth of their community and the politicians they had voted into office; the youth felt unheard in their community, by both the elders and the officials of their neighborhood. They believed that their best chance for advancement, as well as survival, was to move out of their community, and establish themselves elsewhere. With this action, Ward 7 would continue to create a population base of elder residents, as any business or recreation aimed at a young market would disappear entirely.

In addition to these issues, and overarching them, was the reality of violence that was endemic in the area. Both youth and elders felt that they daily survived life in a terror zone of gunfire and threat. The dread both groups endured was oppressive, and fueled a deepening sense of hopelessness and anger.

In putting the collected narrative of this community together something else became apparent; despite their perception of divisiveness, the neighborhood’s youth and elders shared the same fears and worries about their community. Looking out from opposite corners, their view of their environment wasn’t at odds, but was a shared concern.

Several artists of the community shared in listening to the recorded stories, and developed pieces of art that reflected the tales and currents they felt in the words.

I was commissioned to create a ‘scene’ from the collected stories that would then be set to music and presented to the community as WNO’s contribution to the collaboration.

The resulting piece I wrote was called Threading Time, and involved four characters of a neighborhood, moving to a street corner, immersed in their own thoughts. As they come together their voices reflect the commonality of their concerns, and become injected with the strength of one another’s convictions. The piece ends in a single voice of hope and perseverance.

The various pieces of art, rap, dance and song which were the result of the various artists’ reactions to the community’s words were presented at a local high school, with community present, as well as various members of the political landscape of Ward 7, and the District of Columbia.

The day was a wonderfully successful one for all concerned, and each of us pledged to continue to speak about the challenges that faced this particular community, as example of all communities that worked with such challenges.

This event took place last October.

Move forward to this past Tuesday.

I’ve been working with WNO in creating the components of the Opera In Color event being held this coming Saturday, in Ward 7.

It was decided that Threading Time should be a part of this concert, as it came out of the words of the community, and represents WNO’s pledge to community.

But the landscape of violence, touched upon in the words of the song, reached out to take the life of a member of the WNO chorus this past Tuesday.

The victim of a violent act of carjacking, the chorus member lost his life, and his body was left on the grounds of Fort Dupont.

A horrific event, compounded by the fact that the chorus is coming to that place –had already been scheduled to sing in the Opera In Color event this coming Saturday, at that very spot of Fort Dupont, in the National Park.

As Threading Time was rehearsed this past Thursday evening, its words echoed and reverberated in a way I’d never anticipated –the violence, as well as the voices of hope, perseverance and community.

The concert will be dedicated to his memory.

Written by tomminteroffthestoop

June 13, 2010 at 8:59 AM


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…I’ve been working on the Opera In Color concert.

This past week the Music Collection at the Library Of Congress confirmed that they would be facilitating a display at the upcoming Juneteenth Community Celebration.

This event is FREE, and is being sponsored by the Washington National Opera on Saturday, 19th June at Fort Dupont, in the National Park in Anacostia, in collaboration with the Ward 7 Arts Collaborative.

Picnickers are encouraged to come at noon; there will be musical performances while folks gnosh, then beginning at 3PM there will be a concert presentation of opera selections, some from works written by African American composers, sung by members of the chorus from WNO’s Porgy & Bess production.

About a month ago I had reached out to Jeffrey Mumford and the William Grant Still foundation, asking to be able to use works by these composers in the concert. The response to my request, from Jeffrey and Judith Anne Still, was generous and supportive, and I soon found myself with various pieces to use in the concert mix. In addition there will be pieces by Anthony Davis and Clarence Cameron White.

The through line I have been able to create came together with some wonderful serendipity.

Clarence Cameron White (1880 – 1960) was a virtuoso violinist and composer. He studied at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, in Ohio, and also taught at the Washington Conservatory of Music from 1903 – 1907.

In wanting to highlight a composer with DC roots, I noticed that not only is Jeffrey Mumford a native of Washington, DC, but that he has also been a composer in residence at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music.

In looking at the opportunities these two African American composers had, through the ‘Juneteenth ‘doorway, is to appreciate what ramifications emancipation immediately produced. Were it not for that Act, Clarence Cameron White, or any other number of eminent African American composers and musicians, would not have had the right or opportunity, to formal musical education in a conservatory, college, or school of any kind.

An even more significant ‘closing of the circle’ came to light in researching the piece I intended for inclusion in the Opera In Color concert.

Clarence Cameron White’s opera, Ouanga, is based on the life of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a slave who led a revolution and became the first Emperor of Haiti. The opera was written in 1932, and was first performed, in concert version, in the same year.

Though Ouanga had several presentations in subsequent years, the presentation, on May 27, 1956 was one of the more historic -as the opera was performed by the National Negro Opera Company, and presented on the stages of the old Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall.

An incredible footnote to this presentation date, is that it is just a little over one year after Marian Anderson’s historic debut on the stage of the old Metropolitan Opera (January 7, 1955).

In having this realization, I felt it astonishing to note that there is very little sense of general awareness of this historical continuity -nor is there much exclamation about the fact of this significant opportunity, for a black company of singers, in a period of endemic institutional racism.

The National Negro Opera Company, originated by Mary Cardwell Dawson, started in Pittsburgh, but by the late 1940’s had moved, along with Mrs. Dawson and her husband, to residence in Washington, DC, where the company presented many seasons of operatic fare for the District’s population.

While consulting the Library of Congress score of Ouanga, I also did some research in the collection the LOC houses on the National Negro Opera Company, and found written correspondence between Clarence Cameron White and Mrs. Dawson, with specific regard to the specific opportunity in 1956, and presenting the work on the stage of the old Met.

The letters are very moving, and illuminate Clarence Cameron White’s struggle for platform; they also reflect the composer’s steely determination to assure Ouanga’s proper place in history, as well as mark the musical heritage of “Negroes” in the art form of opera.

Reading through these letters of correspondence is a vivid lesson of racial history and advancement, and gives dimension to the vision and reach of these two African Americans who were driven by a passion for an art form, allied with an unbending belief that the art form was not only relevant to blacks, but must be accessible to blacks, with the intention of nurturing others to aspire to create works in, and for, the future.

Several of these letters, and other collateral material, will be part of the artifact display presented by the Library Of Congress at the concert site on June 19th.

General promotion will be up on the National Park Service site shortly.