Community Chorus

Commemorating the Centennial of The Red Summer, Grace Chorale of Brooklyn Commissions “A Stone to the Head: The Death of Eugene Williams.”

This year marks two significant anniversaries in American history:  the 400th anniversary of African slaves being brought to what is now the United States and the centennial of the Red Summer of 1919, when deadly racial clashes and lynchings across the country led to the deaths of hundreds of people, mostly African-Americans, as well as the destruction of thousands of African-American homes and businesses.  In the decade leading up to the summer of 1919, the Great Migration had begun in 1910, initiating the relocation north and west of six million African-Americans from the southern United States. Spurred by economic oppression and Jim Crow segregation laws, African-Americans found employment in Northern cities that were experiencing labor shortages due to World War I. However, returning white soldiers resented black Americans who had been given the jobs they themselves once held. African-American soldiers, in turn, resented their exclusion from the peacetime benefits enjoyed by white soldiers. Tensions reached a boiling point in the spring of 1919 when the first racially motivated attacks began. Lasting from May through October, the period of these conflicts became known as the "Red Summer."

 In a spirit of equal justice and reconciliation, Grace Chorale of Brooklyn commissioned Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa, a Zimbabwean composer and singer, and Flannery Cunningham, an American composer and musicologist, to write a piece that would commemorate this seminal period in American history that is often overlooked.  They chose to tell the story of the death of Euguene Williams, and the Chorale premiered the piece in March of this year.

 Eugene Williams was killed a century ago today on Sunday July 27, 1919, when five teenagers met at the 27th Street beach by Lake Michigan. The 25th Street beach was known as the “black beach” and at 29th Street was the “white beach,” but the boys had claimed 27th Street as their own. For several weeks, a team of black boys had come to 27th Street to work on a raft that would keep them afloat on the lake. The boys could not swim, but they knew if they held onto the raft, they could safely enjoy the water.

 That Sunday, however, their safety was challenged by a white man, George Stauber, standing at the breakwater near 26th Street. The man hurled stones in an effort to drive the boys off. At first the boys made dodging the stones into a game, but the game soon turned tragic. Eugene was struck on the forehead and drowned.  All this was reported to a black policeman, who marched up to 29th Street to identify Eugene’s killer. Officer Daniel Callahan, the white police officer on duty, refused to permit the arrest. As the two policeman argued, word spread like wildfire; hundreds of black patrons descended upon 29th Street beach and violence ensued. The death of Eugene Williams triggered a vicious clash that would be recorded in history as the “Chicago Race Riot,” the most devastating of at least 25 violent racial wars that took place during the summer of 1919.

 “A Stone to the Head: The Death of Eugene Williams” is a choral drama for a mixed chamber group, including an improvising percussionist and fixed media which features mbira recordings performed by Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa. The composers explain, “The Mbira dzaVadzimu is a Madzimbabwe (present-day Zimbabwe) instrument whose ritual purpose is to facilitate communication between the human plane and the ancestral realm. In Madzimbabwe cosmologies and spiritual practice, a murdered spirit cannot become an ancestor unless Kuripa, a ritual of confession and collective responsibility, is conducted. Until this happens, the spirit is to doomed to wander listlessly in the realm of the living — Kudzungaira — with no way to transition to Nyikadzimu, the land of the ancestors. Eugene’s spirit was condemned to such a fate. The purpose of this piece is to call on Eugene’s spirit, to tell his story and to assume collective responsibility that will at last usher his spirit to the land of ancestors where he can finally rest. As such, our goal with the text was to honor Eugene’s narrative through the use of as much primary source material as possible. We spent a great deal of time in detailed research, looking at sources that would serve our intention to tell this story as honestly as we could. These sources included firsthand accounts as well as the music and songs of the time.”

 James Baldwin is quoted as saying, "The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it with us and are unconsciously controlled by it... history is literally present in all that we do."  This work is a vivid reminder of a painful chapter in American history that still defines who we are as a country today.

 Learn more about the Red Summer by reading Cameron McWhirter’s Red Summer:  The Red Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America.

Armed National Guards and African American men standing on a sidewalk during the race riots in Chicago, Illinois, 1919.   Jun Fujita/Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

Armed National Guards and African American men standing on a sidewalk during the race riots in Chicago, Illinois, 1919.

Jun Fujita/Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

OperaDelaware and Wilmington Children’s Chorus Take the Choir to the Child with Neighborhood Choir Program-Wilmington, Delaware

VOICES of Kentuckiana Spreading Message of Acceptance and Equality Through Their Music-Louisville, Kentucky

VOICES of Kentuckiana, founded in 1994 as an inclusive chorus that strives to change hearts and minds through song, “is a chorus for the community that celebrates diversity and is dedicated to fostering positive social change through artistic excellence.”  Under the direction of Jeff Buhrman, the chorus initiated a Youth Outreach Program in 2014 in an effort to bring their music and their message of acceptance and equality to local high schools.  Since then, they have partnered with GSAs, GSTAs and The Louisville Youth Group on performance projects and school programming. 

VOICES has a large footprint in the broader Louisville community.  The group has performed at the Indiana Bicentennial Celebration, Volunteers of America’s annual breakfast, the Louisville AIDS Walk, Kentuckiana Pride Festival, Shine on Louisville, The March for Justice, and World AIDS Day.  VOICES has partnered with choruses from Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Nashville to present joint concerts in Louisville, and they have performed with the Louisville Orchestra, the Louisville Brass Ensemble, the Louisville Gay Men’s Chorus, and with several community church choirs.

VOICES values inclusivity, courage, musicianship, cooperation, empowerment, integrity and joy.  The chorus has participated in international LGBTA choral festivals in Tampa (1996), San Jose (2000), Montreal (2004), Miami (2008), and Denver (2012, 2016).  “Joe Nord, who has been a member of VOICES for two years, loves the inclusiveness. ‘For a few years, I had been wanting to join a choral group but I hadn’t sung in several years and was concerned that I wouldn’t be good enough. My friend, Paula Head, had been singing with VOICES of Kentuckiana for several years and suggested I come to their open enrollment in the Fall of 2013. I knew very quickly I had found the right group!’”

Las Vegas Master Singers a Wellspring of Creativity & Joy in the Desert-Las Vegas, Nevada

When one thinks of Las Vegas, choral music is likely the last thing to come to mind.  However, The Las Vegas Master Singers have been defying that stereotype by making stunning choral music in the Las Vegas Valley since 1993.  The 100-voice community choir, founded by Susan L. Johnson, grew from a small group of dedicated vocalists who came together to sing "for the joy of it." Since then, the Master Singers quickly became recognized as one of the premiere choral organizations in the Las Vegas Valley.

The choir, under the direction of David B. Weiller, is comprised of teachers, choral directors, organists, pianists, and performers from the Southern Nevada community who are committed to forging partnerships with other arts organizations.  LVMS performs with Las Vegas Philharmonic, the Henderson Civic Symphony, the Desert Chorale, the Nevada Chamber Symphony, the Southern Nevada Opera Association, and the Cultural Arts Society.  The group has welcomed students from the Las Vegas Academy, Nevada School of the Arts, Las Vegas Dance Theater Studios, Palo Verde High School Chamber Singers and Boys Chorus of Southern Nevada as guest performers.

Evanston Civic Chorus United Through Harmony-Evanston, Wyoming

Evanston, Wyoming, population 12,400, was founded during the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad.  The first train arrived in December 1868.  With an elevation of 6,800’, the city enjoys over 300 days of sunshine.  The mayor states on the town’s website, “I don’t think a day goes by that we don’t see an antelope or mule deer or maybe even both! Within the Bear River State Park we enjoy our own herd of buffalo and even a couple of bull elk!”

Since 2007, the Evanston Civic Chorus, a non-auditioned group, has been welcoming singers and enriching the community with their choral concerts.  It began as a community class offered by Uinta B.O.C.E.S #1 Education Center and then in 2012, the Evanston Civic Orchestra board voted to adopt the Civic Chorus, so membership was no longer by class enrollment.  “Though the details of how the Chorus functions have changed, and membership varies from year to year, the focus on community has remained constant since the beginning.  Singing together as a community unites us - Unison through Harmony.”

In addition to their two concerts a year, the chorus has performed at the Memorial Day Ceremony, the Fresh Air, Freedom and Fun Festival on July 4th, the Uinta County Museum Dedication, and the opening ceremony of the Tour of Utah bike race.  According to their website, “some of their most meaningful performances have been for audiences at the State Hospital and the Senior Center.”

Lowcountry Voices Celebrate Rich Cultural Heritage of the African-American Choral Tradition-North Charleston, South Carolina

South Carolina’s coastal region, known as the Lowcountry, has a rich musical history that has been shaped by people who have inhabited the region, including the native Edisto, Sewee and Kiawah Indians, planters from Barbados, early French Huguenot settlers and of course West African and Caribbean slaves brought to work the rice, indigo and later, cotton, plantations that were the Carolinas' economic engine. Today the influences of Gullah culture, including remnants of a creole-based language and culinary and craft traditions, are a vital part of Lowcountry heritage.

In 2012, Nathan Nelson founded Lowcountry Voices, a multicultural and ethnically diverse choral performing arts organization based in North Charleston, SC, in an effort to give voice to those distinct traditions and to preserve the cultural legacy and authenticity of African-American music.  Its repertoire includes traditional and contemporary gospel music, spirituals, hymns, jazz, classical choral music, and music from the theater and movies.  The choir is based in North Charleston, but its members are drawn from across the entire Lowcountry region and beyond.  

LCV has cultivated partnerships with various choirs in the region, including the College of Charleston Gospel Choir and Claflin University Concert Choir, and has performed at the Inaugural Lincoln Center Global Exchange Evening Performance and with James Taylor in 2015.  The Lowcountry Voices provided music at the services for the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the slain pastor of the Mother Emanuel AME tragedy, and provided the background singing behind President Obama’s rendition of Amazing Grace.  In July, 2015, LCV took the sounds of the Lowcountry internationally to Bermuda for two enthusiastically received performances.