Lift Every Voice: "Out of the Silence" honors African-American classical artists


Out of the Silence collage

Clockwise from top left: William Grant Still's music will be played by pianist Leah Claiborne, Ivalas Quartet, and harpist Patricia Terry-Ross.

William Grant Still didn't write his three-part suite "Ennanga" in 1956 to be performed on the Ugandan harp for which it's named. But it's telling that Grant, one of the most important African-American classical composers of the 20th century, chose to name this gorgeous piece after an instrument from the motherland but have it performed on the more common European harp, alongside piano and a string quartet. He was blending musical inspirations from two far-away continents into a uniquely American sound.

"Ennanga" is just one of the pieces that will be performed at Out of the Silence at UMMA on Jan. 26 as part of a "narrated concert to honor black classical musicians of the past." But the composition is illustrative as an example of the two worlds African-American artists inhabit as they navigate the primarily white classical-music universe.

Harpist and 2017 Kresge Eminent Artist Patricia Terry-Ross will feature on "Ennanga," playing with Ivalas Quartet and pianist Leah Claiborne, a doctoral candidate at U-M and one of the curators of Out of the Silence along with fellow U-M doctoral candidate Austin Stewart. Other black American musicians who will be honored include pioneering female composer Florence Price, opera composer Harry Lawrence Freeman, frequent Langston Hughes collaborator Margaret Bonds, and composer and bass singer Harry T. Burleigh, among others. Spoken narratives throughout the evening will give context and insights to their works, challenges, and creative lives.

Guests include professor emeritus and renowned bass vocalist Willis Patterson and Elizabeth James, program manager and outreach coordinator in the U-M Department of Afroamerican and African Studies.

A video will be made available soon after the evening concludes, and we'll post it here. But you owe it to yourself to hear these compositions in person, particularly "Ennanga." As the rhythmic opening section segues into the somewhat melancholy second movement, quiet contemplation will wash over you. But the energetic third part will lift you up again, out of the silence.

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.

"Out of the Silence: A Narrated Concert to Honor Black Classical Musicians of the Past" is at UMMA, 525 S. State St., Ann Arbor, on Friday, Jan. 26, at 7 pm. The event is free and part of the SMTD@UMMA Performance Series. Visit the Facebook event page for more information.