World Events Inspire Conservatory Programming

October 27, 2020

Cathy Partlow Strauss ’84

David Bowlin, Sibbi Bernhardsson, and Francesca dePasquale.
Oberlin faculty violinists David Bowlin, Sibbi Bernhardsson, and Francesca dePasquale (from left).

October 30 faculty recital to feature works by William Grant Still.

After a summer of anguish and protests in reaction to the killing of unarmed Black people, Oberlin President Carmen Twillie Ambar drew focus for the campus with her declaration of the Presidential Initiative on Racial Equity and Diversity. The charge to the college and conservatory: Elevate Oberlin’s longstanding commitment to equity for Black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and women.

Conversations and work in the conservatory began early in the summer. Dean William Quillen engaged with students and alumni—principally members of the Oberlin College Black Musicians Guild—who were organizing webinars and panel discussions, meeting with faculty and administrators, and sending letters and petitions. Quillen also activated the faculty, who met within their divisions to craft plans for substantive, immediate action and for ongoing structural transformation.

The conservatory’s resulting commitment—to create a more diverse teaching and learning environment and to amplify the contributions of artists and scholars from historically marginalized communities—is evident in the music being played on campus this semester in large ensembles, by faculty, and on student degree recitals.

The October 30 livestreamed performance on Oberlin Stage Left features works for violin and piano by William Grant Still, one of the most significant American composers of the 20th century and an alumnus of Oberlin Conservatory.

The recital will be broadcast live from Warner Concert Hall at 8:30 p.m., following the President’s Lecture, which begins at 7 p.m.

The lecture, titled “Embarking on New Beginnings—The Responsibility of Classical Music Programming” will be delivered by Timothy Weiss, professor of conducting and ensembles. Weiss will address the question of how classical music can maintain relevance and adequately reflect the human experience.

Faculty members David Bowlin, Sibbi Berhardsson, Francesca dePasquale, Haewon Song, and James Howsmon will collaborate on Still's Suite for Violin and Piano (1943), Pastorela (1946), Quit Dat Fool’nish (1938), and “Summerland” from the Three Visions Suite for Piano (1936), among other works.

Bowlin, also director of the Division of Strings, spearheaded this project and shares that the conservatory’s violin faculty “are excited to present these pieces in Still’s 125th birthday year.”

“Still was a composer of many firsts,” he says. “He was the first American to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera, and up until 1950, his Symphony No. 1 was the most frequently performed symphony by an American. He was also the first African American to conduct a major U.S. orchestra, in a concert of his own works with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936.”

James Howsmon, professor of instrumental accompanying, adds: “Still was part of the early to mid-20th-century group of African American artists known as the ‘Harlem Renaissance.’ The loosely knit group included composers, writers, and artists.”

Though Still’s work was recognized in his lifetime and enjoys a certain profile today, Howsmon explains the need for concentrated efforts to bring this repertoire to concert halls. “Celebrating diversity is not something the classical music world does easily. Even today, Black composers remain on the fringes of the classical music establishment. Social prejudices and other factors have excluded them from entering the classical canon, which continues to be largely dominated by white, male composers.”

In describing what makes Still's writing for the violin and piano duo compelling, Bowlin says, “In general, his writing reflects brilliantly his own musical viewpoints as well as distillations and reflections on the various influences from his childhood; in particular, classical music, the blues, and spirituals. His violin and piano music is cast in a gorgeous, subtle, and unexpected tonality, with a lyrical quality.”

Howsmon, who will perform with dePasquale on the three-movement Suite for Violin and Piano, describes Still’s writing as “beautiful and idiomatic for both instruments. Each movement was inspired by the sculptures and painting of three contemporaneous Black artists—Augusta Savage, Sargent Johnson, and Richmond Barthe. The piece combines a vivid rhythmicality with a sensitive, expressive melodic gift. He successfully blends a classical approach to form with easily identified elements of jazz, spiritual, and dance.”

During the summer, the Oberlin Conservatory Library compiled resources to assist faculty and students in their search to diversify the music they study and perform.

The explorations made possible by these resources have given students the opportunity to unearth and perform remarkable contributions by Black alumni such as Clarence Cameron White (1901).

Student degree recitals have also included pieces by French composer Édith Canat de Chizy, Peruvian French hornist and composer Dante Yenque, Black American composer and violist Sakari Dixon Vanderveer, and Syrian clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh.

The pivot required by COVID-19 to smaller groups of performing musicians gave conducting faculty the opportunity to program unusually scored works for the conservatory’s large ensembles. In the last five weeks, they have performed works by Jonathan Bailey Holland, Trevor Weston, Alvin Singleton, Alejandro García Caturla, Arlene Sierra ’92, Cindy McTee, Julia Adolphe, Asha Srinivasan, and Viet Cuong. The Oberlin College Choir's October 24 performance showcased works by Joel Thompson, Adolphus Hailstork, and Margaret Bonds, alongside pieces by Mendelssohn and Saint-Saëns. Together, these performances and others signify a shift in Oberlin programming that will extend through the semester and into the years to come.

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