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7 Pieces to Commemorate Juneteenth

Lara Downes | Photo by Max Barrett

As we commemorate the Juneteenth holiday, we’re celebrating freedom. We’re remembering the freedoms of the past – long fought for, hard won – and reminding ourselves of the importance for every human being to be free. And we celebrate the freedom found in music – the power of music to liberate our voices and our emotions, to share our stories, and to change our world.

On June 19th, 8PM-Midnight, tune in for Let Freedom Ring: A Musical Celebration of Juneteenth with Lara Downes, a unique journey through musical heritage and the celebration of freedom. In the meantime, enjoy a selection of pieces featured on the program below.

Jessie Montgomery: Starburst

Jessie Montgomery is a shooting star in the musical galaxy, and her Starburst for string orchestra is inspired by this definition of a starburst: “The rapid formation of large numbers of new stars in a galaxy at a rate high enough to alter the structure of the galaxy significantly.”

Lettie B. Alston: Variations on Lift Every Voice and Sing

“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.”

Every new day begins in darkness. As the sun rises, the first light reveals a different world than the one we put to bed the night before. Everything has shifted – the earth has turned, the tide has come and gone, even the cells of our bodies have renewed themselves. Every lifetime is full of so many new mornings, so many new beginnings. As we emerge from the darkness of pandemic and unrest to face a new day, this anthem of faith and freedom sounds as a call for action and a promise to the next generation.

John Newton/E. O. Excell/Anonymous: Amazing Grace

The late, great soprano Jessye Norman is an icon and an inspiration whose musicianship and generosity touched countless hearts. When we lost her in 2019, we lost a guiding light. Here performance-for-the-ages of Amazing Grace speaks to me so profoundly of lineage and legacy, the songs and stories we pass along from one generation to the next.

Florence Price: Mississippi River Suite

Florence Price was a force of nature. Fiercely talented, ambitious, prolific – she was ahead of her time in so many ways. Born and raised in Arkansas, she left the South during a time of intense racial violence, and took her family north to Chicago. She claimed a place in the history books when the Chicago Symphony played her Symphony in E minor in 1934 – the first Black female composer ever performed by a major American symphony orchestra. Her Mississippi River Suite takes us downriver along the banks of the Mississippi, accompanied by haunting melodies, the songs of the birds in the brush and the wind in the trees, and the echoes of old spirituals: “Stand Still, Jordan,” “Go Down, Moses,” and “Deep River” – rolling together into a climactic chorus of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”, before the music fades into the distance. You can learn more about Florence Price on our Open Ears blog series here.

Justin Holland: Peek-a-Boo Waltz

Justin Holland (1819 – 1887) was a composer, classical guitarist, educator, community leader, and activist for equal rights who worked with Frederick Douglass to help slaves on the Underground Railroad. His music is full of charm, grace, and European gentility, an ironic contrast to the realities of his life and times.

Scott Joplin: Treemonisha: Overture

Scott Joplin, known as the “King of Ragtime”, was the composer of the first African American opera. He wrote Treemonisha in 1911, but its only performance during his lifetime was a concert read-through in 1915 with Joplin at the piano, at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, New York, produced and paid for by the composer. In 1976 — almost 60 years after Scott Joplin died — the opera was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Joplin blazed the trail for other notable greats like George Gershwin, with his music leaving an indelible mark on the world. His music has a special place in my heart – my recording of his piano rag ”Solace” is the theme for Amplify with Lara Downes.

Michael Abels: Winged Creatures

Michael Abels (composer of the soundtracks to the Jordan Peele films Get Out and Us) wrote Winged Creatures inspired by the flight of butterflies and other creatures – delicate, frenetic, soaring, and powerful. Brothers Anthony and Demarre McGill bring next-level virtuosity to this music, along with a sense of sibling camaraderie.

Written by:
Lara Downes
Lara Downes
Published on 06.11.2024