The Berkeley Symphony’s season-opening concert on Sunday, Oct. 16, conducted by Music Director Joseph Young, will bring a commissioned piece, a forgotten gem and a canonical work to the Zellerbach Hall stage.
The orchestra, going into its 51st season, plans to continue its tradition of being a purveyor of new music by composers from underrepresented backgrounds, starting with a world premiere of 31-year-old Louisiana-based composer Brian Nabors’ “Upon Daybreak,” a piece inspired by Maya Angelou’s poetry and co-commissioned by the Berkeley Symphony and New Music USA.
Acclaimed violinist Rachel Barton Pine will join the orchestra for a performance of Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2, a piece that was for decades assumed lost. (In 1933, Price was the first Black female composer to have her work performed by a major symphony orchestra in America.)
Closing the program is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, which tells the story of a person’s struggle with, and eventual triumph over, fate. It’s an apt ending for a program exploring musical and personal identities.
The pairing of the new, the neglected and the old is meant to “amplify the human ideals behind those pieces” and let audiences draw connections between music written by composers born in different — yet in some ways similar — worlds, said Young.
Brian Nabors’ new piece imagines a world free from malice
In 2020, musical institutions across the country made promises to perform more works by non-white composers, diversity committees sprung up and arts advocacy groups launched a plethora of initiatives geared toward tackling the startling racial and gender inequities in orchestra programming.
While some of these efforts took the form of open calls for scores by composers of color (which effectively function as competitions), music advocacy group New Music USA’s Amplifying Voices program takes a different approach, ditching the application process and instead relying on existing connections with orchestras and their conductors to get the word out.
Young said he first learned of Nabors’ music through a conductor friend and thought Nabors would be a good fit for the Amplifying Voices program. “Someone around my age that looks like me … we don’t get, as a composer, many opportunities,” Young said.
Nabors credits his parents for fostering his love of the arts (his father served as a pastor and painter; his mother played Hammon organ and piano in church), and Nabors’ time as a church musician and in R&B and jazz bands shaped his composition process, he said.
Nabors, who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, hearing his parents’ stories of life in the segregated South, spoke with Berkeleyside about his vision of a future of peace and acceptance for all people. “Upon Daybreak” is his musical answer to Angelou’s A Brave and Startling Truth, a poem she delivered at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the United Nations that speaks of a world free from hate and hostility.
“I asked myself, ‘If freedom had a sound, what would that sound like?’” Nabors said. His answer is a tonal piece that puts the whole orchestra to work; his score calls for a full woodwind and brass section, three percussionists, a harp, a piano and strings. “It’s embedded in me as a person, in my spirit,” he said. “There’s so much for me, as a human being, that is encapsulated with the idea of freedom by virtue of who I am and where I’m from.”
Amplifying Voices’s first cohort includes 11 composers and an impressive 45 orchestras. The program helps cover the composer’s travel and accommodation expenses, roughly $12,000 per composer, with the commissioning orchestra responsible for paying the composer for the piece itself. Amplifying Voices then works with the orchestras to secure anywhere from three to eight more performances of the music across the country before 2025.
These repeat performances give the music more leverage, said Young. Too often, a composer’s new piece is performed just once, he explained. It makes it more difficult for a budding composer to get their name in front of audiences and their scores into the hands of the conductors and music directors who decide what music makes it into the concert hall.
For a young orchestra composer, even getting that first performance can be a challenge, Young said. To get your work into the world and make new connections, you’ll need an orchestra to perform your music. But to get an orchestra to play your music in the first place is a rare opportunity that you can only get if you have the right connections.
Nabors said the work organizations like Amplifying Voices does is vital in connecting composers with conductors who will mentor them and champion their work. “It does wonders for us,” Nabors said, adding that over the past three years, he’s gotten to a point where he’s forced to turn down new engagements. “It’s a … revolving door that keeps allowing people to have opportunities.”
A belated resurfacing of Florence Price’s music
Violinist and philanthropist Pine has long encouraged orchestras to recognize the contributions of classical Black composers. In September, she celebrated the silver anniversary of her 1997 album “Violin Concerts by Black Composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries,” reissuing an updated album dedicated to her mentor, Oakland Symphony conductor Michael Morgan, who died last year.
But since concert halls reopened in 2021, she’s seen an “exciting turnaround”: Orchestras have become more enthusiastic about programming music by previously overlooked composers like Florence Price, who was born in Arkansas in 1887 and was little known at the time of her death in 1953.
Since last year, Price’s music has begun to receive the attention it was never given during the composer’s lifetime. Her second violin concerto, rediscovered in an abandoned house in 2009, was most recently performed in the Bay Area in September, when the San Francisco Symphony performed it for the first time with violinist Randall Goosby. In May, her piano concerto received its San Francisco premiere.
This concert will mark Pine’s first solo performance with the Berkeley Symphony and her first public performance of Price’s second violin concerto, a “masterpiece” the composer finished in 1952, a year before her death (she never lived to hear it played live).
“The quality of this music speaks for itself, and it’s not there to check a box,” Pine said. “When you hear these pieces, you’re not saying, ‘Okay, I did my duty, I played a piece by a Black woman composer.’ You’re saying, ‘I love this piece.’”