Opera ballet

IU opera and ballet will feature music by William Grant Still, first professional black conductor

Composer William Grant Still poses at the piano in this undated photo.

American composer and conductor William Grant Still (1895-1978) was born in Mississippi and became the first black person to conduct a professional orchestra in the United States.

Among his compositions are many symphonies, operas and ballets, but people know him best for his Afro-American Symphony (1931), which eventually added him to the list of recognized musical artists. In fact, he became known as the dean of African-American composers.

“An Evening of William Grant Still,” featuring his opera “Highway 1, USA” plus a ballet, “19,” to his music, will come to the Indiana University Center for the Musical Arts at 7:30 p.m. and February 5, 11 and 12. The ballet will open the event.

In 1941 Still began work on “Highway 1, USA”, the title being “A Southern Interlude”. He participated in several competitions with her; none brought success. Twenty years later, while attending a concert at the University of Miami, Still and a faculty member/conductor discussed the possibility of producing an opera Still. Still made changes to “A Southern Interlude” and gave it a new title, “Highway 1, USA”.

On Still’s 68th birthday, it premiered at Coral Gables High School in 1963. It was subsequently performed at venues such as Opera/South in Jackson, Mississippi, and by New York’s Opera Ebony in Beacon Theatre. And last spring, the Opera Theater of Saint Louis played it.

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Still began studying the violin at age 14 and taught himself other instruments. He was particularly gifted for the cello and the oboe. As a student at Wilberforce University in Ohio, he led the college band and began composing and orchestrating. According to the Library of Congress website, the career of English composer and conductor Samuel Coleridge-Taylor motivated Still to compose operas and concert music. Still freelance as an arranger and performer for many of the Ohio area’s top bands.

Living in Los Angeles in the 1930s, he also composed film scores, for which he received little credit, and he arranged music for theater orchestras and early radio, with names such as Paul Whiteman, Sophie Tucker, Willard Robison and Artie Shaw.

Howard Hanson and the Rochester Philharmonic created Still’s Afro-American Symphony. In Manhattan, it was premiered by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall (1935). The New York City Opera produced Still’s opera “Troubled Island”, a first for a black performer to be staged by a major opera company (1949). It was also the first by a black composer to air on national television.

Kimille Howard

Kimille Howard

Kimille Howard directs

“Highway 1” is directed by Kimille Howard, a New York-based director, screenwriter and filmmaker and assistant director at the Metropolitan Opera.

“It was a new experience for me in opera,” she said over the phone. “(IU Jacobs) included me in the casting process.” Normally in opera, she says, the director comes to rehearsal, “and they say, ‘Here’s your cast.'” they match the character.

“It’s not about people coming to hear the voice. It’s about coming to hear the story. Singers have to play their part through singing.”

Howard originally planned to become a director at Disney World, where she participated in Disney’s college program. Among other tasks, such as taking marketing classes, she sold goods (she was a “saleswoman”) at the Tower of Terror elevator ride. Later, she worked in costume design.

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She began to realize that if she stayed with Disney, she might miss developing her own ideas. In addition, having been an actress, she was tired of working with directors with whom she did not agree. The staging seemed freer, and she wanted to be part of the “genesis of a new work”.

“Making sure the actors have agency” is important to her as a director. “I’ll step in if I feel like the actors are performing, but I’m taking a collaborative approach.”

One thing that draws him to making “Highway 1” is that it’s a black story told by a black artist.

While she loves that all types of people are part of the repertoire, the works are often just not their real stories.

“You can edit a frame, but it wasn’t written in our voice, as a people. I hope to see the work of (additional) current, living composers.”

And, there’s so much out there, many of which feel new because it hasn’t been done yet.

Arthur Fagen

Arthur Fagen

Arthur Fagen conducts

Arthur Fagen, conductor, music director of the Atlanta Opera and professor at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, will conduct.

Choreography by Sasha Janes

In addition to the opera, IU dancers will demonstrate freedom of movement in a ballet choreographed by Jacobs’ associate ballet teacher, Sasha Janes, to music by Still’s Afro-American Symphony. This version of Jacobs’ ballet will include all three sections of Janes’ ballet “19”. (The 2020 Fall Ballet featured the first two movements of Janes’ work.) The ballet is a stand-alone piece that Janes choreographed as an exercise for students after classes resumed in the Fall 2020 semester.

Sasha Janes

Sasha Janes

“I choreographed the first two moves, in which all the dancers were physically distanced,” he said, “and I thought I would end up choreographing one last move to represent the end of the pandemic, so I’m choreographing this part now although I have my doubts about the ending!”

The pandemic wave has affected orchestra rehearsals and there will be no live orchestra for the ballet. A recording will be used for “19” followed by the live orchestra scheduled for “Highway 1, USA”.

If you are going to

WHAT: Opera and ballet. “An Evening of William Grant Still.” Opera “Highway 1, USA” plus “19”, IU Jacobs’ 2020 fall ballet, including the third section of choreography by Sasha Janes.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. on February 4, 5, 11 and 12.

OR: Live (February 4-5) and in person at the Musical Arts Center, 101 N. Jordan Ave., 812-855-7433.

TICKETS: https://operaballet.indiana.edu/buy-tickets/index.html.

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: IU School of Music to Host Black Composer William Grant Still’s Opera