On June 9, the Harlem Chamber Players (HCP) will celebrate both their 15th anniversary and Black Music Month with a concert, Harlem Songfest II, at Miller Theatre at Columbia University.
In a recent interview with the Amsterdam News, HCP founder Liz Player said that in addition to music by traditional European composers, HCP, which consists of a diverse group of musicians, will play music by Black composers. “We’ll be performing the ‘Overture to Tremonisha’ by Scott Joplin. We’ve got ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’ by Margaret Bond, who was friends with Langston Hughes. We’ll have ‘There is a Balm in Gilead’ from ‘Spiritual Sketches’ by Damien Sneed, Dorothy Rudd Moore’s ‘4th of July’ aria from her opera about Frederick Douglass, and the aria from Mary Watkins’s opera ‘Emmett Till.’” HCP will also perform Harlem Renaissance composer Harry Lawrence Freeman’s aria “The Voodoo Queen.”
Freeman “is known as the first African-American composer to write an opera that was successfully produced,” Player said. “He wrote over 20 operas, but not much is known about him. It would be great if an opera company would go through the archives and look at some of this other music and discover what he really is abou, because I would love to know more.”
Although the number of musicians who play at any HCP event varies, this concert boasts a 60-piece orchestra. Conducting will be Damian Sneed. Sopranos Janinah Burnett and Jasmine Muhammad and baritone Kenneth Overton — all currently on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera — and tenor Martin Bakari and mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford will make appearances.
The Monmouth, NJ-born, Harlem-based Player describes herself as an “army brat” who lived in Japan and Korea as a child. She fell in love with the clarinet as a child and knew she wanted to be a musician, but her parents resisted her pursuing that as a career. “I actually quit the clarinet for a while and studied computer science,” she recalled. “I was a program analyst for eight years before I quit and went back for a second bachelor’s degree at Queens College for music because I missed it so much.”
Player eventually found herself playing for the NY Housing Orchestra, which was pivotal in the history of the HCP. “I founded [the HCP]t in 2008 with the late violist Charles Dalton. We met during a benefit gala concert at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall for the New York City Housing Symphony Orchestra,” Player recalled of the orchestra founded by Janet Wolfe, a long-time patron of classical musicians of color.
Although she is driven by the idea of creating opportunities for Black and brown classical musicians, Player said the process of founding and running HCP has been just as rewarding in another way. “I discovered just how much Black composers have contributed to what we call classical music or European derived classical music,” she said.
She gives much of the credit for this to WQXR radio personality, Terrance McKnight, HCP artistic advisor and host of the upcoming concert. “He really educated me a lot on this. Even growing up studying classical music before college, I knew nothing about Back composers of classical music. I thought this was a European art form. I love those giants in the European classical music world, but it’s just been wonderful discovering all these Black composers and women composers, and other composers of color.”
Two of Player’s favorite clarinetists are Sidney Bechet and Harold Wright.
Even with much of the work toward creating a more equitable playing field for Black classical musicians that organizations like HCP, the Sphinx Organization, and others have done, the turning point was the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Player said. “Suddenly the classical music world opened its eyes to the horrors of anti-Black racism. Then major symphony orchestras were rushing to do works by composers of color.”
From Player’s standpoint, the yawning wealth gap between Blacks and whites is a major structural deterrent to a Black and brown presence in classical music. Black and Brown people make up only 4% of musicians in major symphony orchestras, she said. “Instrumental music- studying classical music is very expensive. It’s expensive to go take lessons, to go to auditions.”
She said the practice of tenure in orchestras is also a deterrent. “People tend to stay in a symphony orchestra until basically they die or are close to death, so it’s even harder for anyone to get in.”
Player said that as in most areas, nepotism plays a major role in classical music. “A lot of it has to do with who you know. You need to know what schools have the best teachers, you need a mentor—someone who is in the classical music world who can show you the ropes.” Black and brown aspiring musicians, because of structural racism, often do not have this kind of access.
Finally, Player emphasized the importance of supporting groups like HCP. “We’re Black-led, and trying to create an orchestra that represents our city and our country right now. Our orchestra is Black, white, Asian, Black, Latinx. We’re all coming together to create music, which is what draws us together, brings us together, heals and transforms us.”
For more info, visit www.harlemchamberplayers.org.