The Reva and Sid Dewberry Family School of Music presents A Song of Freedom: Featuring World Premieres by Evelyn Simpson-Curenton and Michael W. Nickens, Saturday, May 8 at 8:00 p.m. as part of Mason Arts at Home. The concert celebrates unity and resilience in the face of division and uncertainty and showcases works by Black composers as well as selections inspired by the African-American experience.
The program’s world premieres are commissions by the Dewberry School of Music from renowned composer Evelyn Simpson-Curenton and Mason’s own Associate Professor of Music and Director of the Green Machine Ensembles Michael W. Nickens (Doc Nix).
“This magnificent concert is a true collaboration across our Dewberry School of Music students, staff, and faculty and is a celebratory finale to an unparalleled year. We heard clearly from our students that ‘representation matters,’ and our music faculty resolved to commission and highlight works by gifted Black composers for our May concert,” shared Dewberry School of Music Director Linda A. Monson. “Together we are using our gifts as artists to demonstrate the power of working together. I am so proud of the performances by our students and honored for the opportunity for the Dewberry School of Music to commission two remarkable compositions.”
Simpson-Curenton’s world premiere of Passages will feature current students from across the University Choirs, a guest solo appearance by School of Music alumna and Metropolitan Opera artist Aundi Marie Moore, as well as solos by current students Rosie Wright, Case Hope, and Eliyahu Young. Under the direction of the Director of Choral Studies, Stanley Engebretson, Passages uses phrases from the Bible and other sources and lifts up the ideals of justice and of loving the common good. Lyrics such as “sing now a song of freedom where all are inherently free” and “let justice roll down as water with righteousness, like an ever-flowing stream” guide the beautiful imagery within the music.
Reflecting on the piece, Engebretson shared, “Teaching and rehearsing this premiere by one of Washington’s most famous composers has been a great honor and privilege. It was a great delight to introduce her to Mason’s singers via Zoom so they could experience her amazing talents for themselves. Her brilliant piece captures the majesty of freedom with the call for us to ‘come together as one’ in a most empathic way.”
Nickens’s original work, titled The Orator, The Abolitionist, The Man: Frederick Douglass is based on the 1893 biography written by his great-great grandfather James Monroe Gregory, a contemporary of Douglass. His piece features the Mason Wind Symphony, members of the Green Machine, and spoken word derived directly from the biography and Douglass’ speeches, delivered as narration by Nickens himself.
Nickens’s piece is inspired by composers such as Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein as well as 90s hip hop artists including Wu-Tang Clan, who all unapologetically brought the local culture to the sound of the time. The piece’s musical style ebbs between orchestral, go-go, and hip hop layered with spirituals and Protestant hymns.
Nickens shared, “As a work very much in progress (the second movement of a larger composition I am creating), I am grateful to our students collaborating with me to bring this nine-month project to life. I hope all who experience it hear the narration both as an artifact of our American history and as an opportunity to connect with the enduring issues that are being addressed today.”
This pre-recorded digital concert features more than 100 students performing as part of the momentous event, including additional works ranging from works by distinguished Black composers such as William Grant Still and George Walker, to Antonin Dvorák, and U2’s “MLK.” The performance highlights students from the Mason Symphony Orchestra, University Choirs, Wind Symphony and Green Machine, Trombone Choir, Percussion Ensemble, and Tuba/Euphonium Ensemble.