Albany Symphony embraces ‘Convergence’ of ideas

Ase Dance Theater Collective

Ase Dance Theater Collective

The Albany Symphony Orchestra often tackles social issues when it presents its American Music Festival.

This year the festival, which runs from this Wednesday to Sunday, June 11, is titled “Convergence,” as it explores cultural traditions, particularly African-American traditions.

“We started the Convergence Project three years ago with funds from the philanthropist Carl E. Touhey’s foundation to help the orchestra find ways to embrace all cultural trends beyond our typical fields,” said David Alan Miller, ASO’s music director. “He was especially interested in Black traditions . . . to get the orchestra to interact in areas we’d not explored before, such as hip hop, dance, spoken word.”

Three great practitioners were chosen: renowned jazz violinist Regina Carter; Afro-Caribbean choreographer Adia Tamar Whitaker; and poet/dancer/opera librettist/spoken-word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph. Every month, each came to work with students, musicians and community groups to develop connections with the orchestra through their specific disciplines.

“This festival is a culmination of that work, but it’s only the first stage of these issues,” Miller said. “I hope to continue the work.”

Each of the artists will be featured at a concert that will include members of the orchestra, with world premieres featured at each concert.

Carter and her quintet are up first on Wednesday at The Egg in what will be a musical exploration of the impact of urban development in Black and immigrant communities, and the resulting displacement of people and their cultures.

On Thursday, Whitaker will lead people in an Afro-Caribbean dance lesson at Troy’s Sanctuary for Independent Media along with Guy de Chalus, the music director of her internationally known, award-winning Ase Dance Theater Collective, a 23-year-old, Brooklyn-based group of dancers who perform Afro-Caribbean and Haitian traditional and contemporary dance.

Her next big event, at noon on Saturday, will move from Troy’s Monument Square to Riverfront Park. This “reimagining ritual dance theater” is based on the Pinkster festival that is generally held around this time of year by Black communities.

“It’s called Have K(NO!)w Fear, or thrive and survive,” Whitaker said. “It’s how classical forms come into African-American cultures.”

Pinkster comes from the Dutch Pinksteren, which means Pentecost, with a festival held the following Sunday. In 1626, the Dutch brought the first Black slaves to Dutch Colonial New Netherlands, as New York was then known. As their communities grew in this state, Delaware and parts of Pennsylvania and Connecticut, they’d gather to celebrate their traditions with a three- to five-day festival complete with much drumming and dancing. But when Albany lawmakers outlawed the playing of African drums in 1811, it put an end to the festival. In 2011, the prohibition was symbolically lifted, which opened the way for the festival to return.

In keeping with this tradition, Whitaker wrote songs and lyrics, which bass trombonist Chuck Morris scored for roughly eight musicians who will support Whitaker and her dancers as they wend their way.

“My lyrics are about gentrification, police brutality, ancestors, equity inclusion . . . to transmute all emotions without fear to all — to not be coded,” Whitaker said. “We must all move together to grow and to change our world and protect our planet. I am so excited. It’s so crazy to have something in your head and now it’s a real thing.”

That night at EMPAC at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, Joseph will perform the world premiere of a Spoken Word Concerto for Orchestra composed by violinist/colleague Daniel Bernard Roumain. A spoken-word piece is akin to a vocalist singing an aria backed by an orchestra. The difference is that the actor speaks the libretto and does not sing it. The words are, in this case, about forms of forgiveness.

Joseph’s work has garnered many awards and he currently serves as vice president/director of social impact at the Kennedy Center. This concerto is the third spoken-word piece Roumain and Joseph have worked on.

“The four movements are of an epic poem with a framework to forgiveness and its expanse,” Joseph said. “It’s not a narrative, but the words must be dynamic enough to feel integrated with poetry inside that is compelling.”

Miller calls the work “powerful.” Also on the program is Adolphus Hallstork’s Symphony No. 4, which the ASO will record; and four selections from David Schiff’s “Four Sisters.” Miller said Hallstork grew up in Albany and attended Albany High School, and the Schiff work revolves around improvisations by Billy Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Carter will also be featured in the work.

As always, the festival includes several other events. On Thursday at EMPAC, composer/professor Christopher Theofanidis will have several young composers’ works performed and critiqued. The Dogs of Desire concert on Friday at EMPAC will have four world premieres all related to Black/Latin cultures by what Miller termed “very early stage composers.” The works were all commissioned by the ASO. There is also a late-night lounge that night (“A Love Letter to Hip-Hop”) in EMPAC’s Evelyn’s Cafe.

On Saturday, after the symphony’s season finale, Roumain will entertain at Evelyn’s. And a “First Draughts” reading from emerging composers and a beer tasting will be held Sunday, June 11, at Bush Memorial Hall at Russell Sage College.

“Convergence is a real celebration,” Miller said.

There will also be five free run-out concerts primarily of repertoire from the Dogs’ concerts played by a small chamber group.

If you go

Albany Symphony Orchestra American Music Festival

HOW MUCH: Festival Pass is $79;

WHEN/WHERE/HOW MUCH: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. — Regina Carter Quintet at The Egg; $35-$75 (free with pass)

Thursday, 2 p.m. — Composers’ Masterclass; free

Thursday, 5:30 p.m. — Thrive and Survive Dance Workshop; Sanctuary for Independent Media at 3361 6th Ave, Troy; free

Friday, 7:30 p.m. — Dogs of Desire; EMPAC; $42 (free with pass)

Friday, 9:30 p.m. — Hip-Hop Lounge, Evelyn’s Cafe; $10 (free with pass)

Saturday, noon — Monument Square,Troy; free

Saturday, 7:30 p.m. — ASO finale; EMPAC; $20-$65 (free with pass)

Saturday, 9:30 p.m. — Lounge with Roumain, Evelyn’s Cafe; $10 (free with pass)

Sunday, June 11, 7:30 p.m. — First Draughts; Bush Memorial Hall. $10 (free with pass)

Outdoor concerts

June 29, 3 p.m. — Harriet Tubman home, Auburn

June 30, 5 p.m. — Sojourner Truth State Park, Kingston

July 1, 5 p.m. — John Brown Farm, Lake Placid

July 2, 8 p.m. — Mohawk Harbor, Schenectady + fireworks

July 3, 8 p.m. — Riverlink Park, Amsterdam + fireworks

Categories: Life and Arts

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