Classical composer Adolphus Hailstork (305194)
Credit: Photo courtesy of the Greene Space at WQXR and WNYC

“I don’t know how you ignore tragedy, I don’t know how you ignore three-hundred years of slavery. I don’t know how you just turn your head. I’m not that kind of person,” classical composer Adolphus Hailstork tells the Amsterdam News in an interview to promote the upcoming streaming concert “Tulsa 1921 (Pity These Ashes, Pity This Dust.” This was the response of the multi-award winner and Fulbright recipient when asked about some of the things that inspire and compel him when he sits down to compose.

Hailstork was commissioned by the Harlem Chamber Players to create a piece commemorating the upcoming centennial of the Tulsa Massacre, in which a mob of whites attacked the prosperous Black community of in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood district, or Black Wall Street. Hundreds of Black people were killed, and the buildings burned to the ground. Many of the survivors left. Those who stayed and tried to rebuild, encountered strong opposition by Tulsa government officials. The piece, which shares its name with the concert itself, will be performed virtually on Juneteenth at 7 p.m.

The operatic retelling of the Tulsa Race Massacre will feature mezzo-soprano , and is part of a larger program of works by Black composers, including , and . The concert will be presented in partnership with , , and the .

Hailstork describes the piece as “a concert aria created for mezzo soprano, string, harp and percussion.” Its libretto was written by Hailstork’s longtime collaborator Dr. Herbert Martin. “He took the approach of a grief-stricken woman who has just held her dying mother in her arms,” Hailstork explains.

After the character’s mother dies, she walks through a charred Tulsa, lamenting the injustice. “At the end,” says Hailstork, “she asks that the people who have died be honored,” and that the survivors “strive to go on. That’s what he wrote and that’s what I was glad to set.”

Among some of Hailstork’s most critically acclaimed works are those that salute historical figures such as the opera “Rise For Freedom” for abolitionist John Parker, who helped slaves escape to Ohio, the song cycle “Three Dunbar Hymns” in honor of poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, “Hercules,” a tone poem for George Washington’s famed chef, the opera “Joshua’s Boots,” about Black cowboys, and the funeral piece “Epitaph for a Man who Dreamed” for Martin Luther King Jr. The Howard University graduate, who also trained with the legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, has also created works in honor of Paul Robeson and novelist Zora Neale Hurston.

Many of his historical subjects touch on America’s past injustices even as they celebrate the Black Americans whose efforts led to overcoming them; topics some would rather avoid.

Hailstork dismisses the idea that thorny issues should be kept separate from classical music, arguing that incorporating social issues, historical events, even those that might make some uncomfortable, are endemic to the creative process. “The precedent has always existed. Music has always stood for something. Ancient tribes danced when they needed the gods to send rain. You

can’t separate music from what’s going on in society.”

He also believes art can and should be used to lift up African American heroes. “European royalty always demanded pieces to be written for this or that ceremony. My idea is, if they deserve to have all this noble music, why can’t African Americans have the same thing?”

There also is often a religious, both European and African American, component to many of the Albany, NY native’s works. “I love the spirituals,” Hailstork stated. “Being able to sing those spirituals kept the slaves going for all those years. They didn’t have orchestras and bands but they could sing, and the beauty of those spirituals speaks for itself. So I try to keep them alive in my music.”

Professionally, Hailstork has also been on the faculty at Michigan State University, Youngstown State University, and Old Dominion University where he sometimes found the foundational education of the students lacking. “Music education needs to be brought back to the schools and kids need to be exposed to the so-called master works,” he began.

Lobbing an even more scathing rebuke, Hailstork, whose own musical journey began in his elementary public school stated, “I think in the public school system the children are used to sing in the choir, they are used to play in the band, but they aren’t taught anything about what they are singing and playing.”

With the type of subjects he normally tackles, Hailstork, who composed “Fanfare on Amazing Grace” for President Biden’s inauguration, admits that they can bring up strong feelings that impact how he writes his music. His second symphony, for instance, was influenced by a moving experience visiting Ghana’s Door of No Return. “It’s about,” he says, “balancing anger , grief, and determination.” Calling this his “Stacey Abrams philosophy,” he continued. “We’ve had to fight to stay alive, fight to flourish, fight every single moment just to get the rights to participate in this society.”

That being said, Hailstork cautions against what he terms a “hateful” attitude. “That doesn’t do any good, and anger can be channeled in positive ways. Determination is my most consistent emotion projected in these pieces. African Americans must have the determination to hold on, to persist, and go forward.”

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