The Princeton Symphony Orchestra Pays Tribute to the Emancipation Proclamation's 150th Anniversary

The Princeton Symphony Orchestra Pays Tribute to the Emancipation Proclamation's 150th Anniversary

“The way to write American music is simple. All you have to do is be an American and then write any kind of music you wish.” - Virgil Thomson (1896-1989), composer and critic

The basic mission of symphony orchestras in America is to serve as museums for the great music of past times and other places. But forward-looking orchestras do everything they can to update their repertory with the music of our time and place, and address subjects that are present in their audience’s lives. The Princeton Symphony Orchestra will be taking on this challenge next weekend (Oct. 4-6) with “American Voices,” a program commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 3rd Annual Festival of Music and Art.

There’s no more appropriate way to do this than to celebrate the music of African Americans, which is perhaps the richest stream in this country’s musical heritage. It has often been said that the United States has given birth to only one indigenous musical genre—jazz, which is sometimes described as “America’s classical music.” That doesn’t tell us much, actually, and slights the blues, rock ’n’ roll, and more recent genres such as rap and hip-hop. But jazz is the genre that has won worldwide recognition as a serious art form and displays the “Made in America” label with particular potency.

At first, says Melanie Clarke, the Princeton Symphony’s executive director, the orchestra was looking for a meaningful way to plug into the township-wide celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, which has been marked by events presented by Princeton community organizations over the course of 2013. She remembered that Derek Bermel— a versatile, boundary-pushing composer then serving as Artist in Residence with the Institute for Advanced Study—was interested in African drumming and working on a concerto that reflected that interest. But Bermel told her “the concerto wouldn’t be ready until 2015 or 2016,” she says. “Then he started talking about ‘The Migration Series.’”

By the early 1940s, the African American painter Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) had completed a series of 60 paintings depicting “the Great Migration” of Southern black Americans to the North in the early decades of the 20th century. Bermel became acquainted with the Atlantic City-born painter’s work as a child, and was inspired by these images. In 2006, he composed a concerto for jazz band and orchestra, “The Migration Series,” in five movements, each spotlighting a specific painting, on commission by Wynton Marsalis for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the American Composers Orchestra.

“I looked up Jacob Lawrence,” says Clarke, “and I realized this would be the perfect project for (PSO). The music, the paintings, the migration as an outgrowth of emancipation, the national and the local aspects – these were perfect for educational development. We could perform a significant new work by an American composer and develop all the connections the work makes. We could draw our community into the migration story through the arts, and show how a symphony orchestra could be relevant to a community outside the concert hall, too.”

A classically trained composer (Yale, University of Michigan) and a clarinetist active on the concert scene, Bermel is known for his exceptionally wide range of stylistic interests – classical, jazz, world music, rock, funk. He has traveled the world, studying the music of Yemen in Jerusalem, the music of Thrace in Bulgaria, choro music in Brazil, and the music of a xylophone-like instrument, called the “gyil,” in Ghana. In 2011 he wrote a set of orchestral arrangements for rapper Mos Def’s performances with the Brooklyn Philharmonic.

In conceiving “The Migration Series,” Bermel realized from the start that the integration of forces would be a challenge.

“I knew there were incongruities,” he says. “It’s tough to get a string section to swing. Jazz musicians are not accustomed to reading the myriad of information you find in a symphonic score. I tried to address these challenges by bringing the strengths of both groups to the fore. I solved the problem by writing a concerto for the band, with the orchestra as a sustaining surrounding. The orchestra adds color. The band adds rhythm.”

The collaboration with the Lincoln Center jazz band appeals to Rossen Milanov, PSO’s music director and conductor, but he’s quick to say, with a laugh, “I leave jazz to the pros, which is a good idea for a conductor from Eastern Europe (Bulgaria). The way this piece is set structurally, the jazz ensemble pretty much functions on its own. Sometimes the orchestra doubles what the ensemble is playing, but most of the time we serve as a canvas behind them.”

To round off “The Migrations Series,” Milanov has chosen two American classics, the Suite from Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” (1944) and George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”: A Symphonic Picture, which features most of the hit tunes from the 1935 opera. The Copland piece carries forward a migration theme, too; in this case, white pioneers in Pennsylvania.

“I have to say that the closest things I’ve done to jazz are pieces by Gershwin and Bernstein, who are the ‘American Voices’ known in concert halls around the world,” Milanov says. “Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein define the American style for Europeans, also music from the movie culture. I’ve loved this music from a very early age and don’t separate it from the classical tradition.” Milanov conducted the Bulgarian premiere of “Appalachian Spring” in 1990, and also introduced Samuel Barber’s “Violin Concerto” to Bulgarian audiences.

Bermel has just been appointed artistic director of the American Composers Orchestra in New York City; he has been serving as creative adviser with ACO since 2009. Founded in 1977, ACO is one of the nation’s leading incubators of new music, having presented more than 200 world premieres.

Whether standard repertory or new music is the issue, Bermel sees an urgent need for the strengthening of history education in the schools, in general.

“American students aren’t getting a good grounding in history, and the arts are part of that history. The better we teach our history, the better we can teach art,” he says. “One of the things that attracted me to Jacob Lawrence’s paintings is that I realized they were teaching me a history I wasn’t learning in school. Art is born out of history. My piece wasn’t written as an educational piece, but what’s wonderful is that the PSO can turn it into something by which young people can be introduced to their country’s history.”

If you’re going: Friday, Oct. 4: PSO Behind the Music—panel discussion with composer Derek Bermel; PSO Music Director Rossen Milanov; and conductor of the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra, James Burton III.  Taking place at the Arts Council of Princeton at 4:30 p.m. Free and open to the public, but advanced reservations requested. Call 609-497-0020.

Saturday, Oct. 5: Third 3rd Annual Festival of Music and Art: “Freedom Expressed!” PSO Family Concert: A Salute to African Americans’ Jazz Heritage, 12:30 to 1:30 p.m., Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Derek Bermel’s “Migration Series,” concerto for jazz band and orchestra. $10 tickets, general admission. Call 609-497-0020 or order online,

Sunday, Oct. 6: PSO Classical Series, “American Voices,” 4 p.m., Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Features Derek Bermel’s “Migration Series” concerto for jazz band and orchestra, performed with the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra; plus Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”: A Symphonic Picture, Rossen Milanov conducting. Tickets: $75, $60, $48, $30 and $25 (students under 17). Call 609-497-0020 or order online,

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