Voices and Vision: Celebrating Black Classical Music Artists in “Our Song, Our Story”

Musicians in performance, with a string quartet, piano and two singers, standing in the middle of the stage, in front of the piano.

Performers for “Our Song, Our Story” at the Folly Theater. L-R: Amyr Joyner, Messian Ahmed (violin), Damien Sneed (piano), Raehann Bryce-Davis, Raven McMillon (standing), Thapelo Masita (cello), Julius Adams (viola). Image: Andrew Schwartz/Veritography

“Our Song, Our Story: The New Generation of Black Voices” was more than a recital of arias and art songs. It was a tribute to the legacy of Black excellence and recognition of the struggle for those voices to be heard, connected by personal recollections. 

The project was conceived by the multi-talented Damien Sneed. And while he played piano and introduced the artists and the significance of the pieces, he did not put himself forward as the star of the show, giving center stage to the music and the message. His only solo turn opened the performance, on Hale Smith’s 1966 “Evocation,” a brief but powerful piece, the twelve-tone technique connecting mid-century classical music with African American influences.

Competing with Sunday night football and holiday travel, the Sunday night performance at the newly renovated Folly Theater was not as well attended as a concert of this caliber would otherwise assume. Nevertheless, those present were treated to a fascinating, varied performance, presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series.

Joining Sneed were two exceptional vocalists who have already established themselves on the world stage: soprano Raven McMillon and mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis. And though they’ve performed throughout the United States and Europe, this was their debut concert in Kansas City. 

Sneed also put together the Griot String Quartet for this production: Amyr Joyner and Messiah Ahmed on violin, Thapelo Masita on cello and, subbing in for this performance, Julius Adams on viola. Adams is a recent addition to the Kansas City Symphony. The fact that these were all Black men was no accident – Sneed is determined to change perceptions, demonstrating these musicians’ sensitivity and skill. 

Presented without intermission, Sneed concocted an assemblage that harkened back to those pioneering Black vocalists who forged the way in classical music in the previous generations, artists like Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Robert McFerrin, and Marian Anderson. Sneed selected and arranged some of the works performed in Norman and Battle’s 1990 “Spirituals in Concert” at Carnegie Hall, one of the defining performances he witnessed as a young man.

In turn and together, McMillon and Bryce-Davis continued this grand tradition, performing spirituals, operatic selections and lieder, as well as art songs by Black composers. McMillon has a warmth to her voice that is inviting and innocent. Bryce-Davis is a fascinating performer, every gesture intentional, with a rich tone.  

The operatic selections and lieder demonstrated handily the musicians’ mastery of those genres, with their range of emotions and stylistic requirements. In between those sections, the Griot String Quartet performed the first movement from Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s String Quartet No. 1 “Calvary,” a swift, angular piece. 

The final and most soul-stirring section featured music by Black composers. Given unlimited time, hearing more from these artists would have been welcome, as the four selections were powerful and evocative examples. McMillon chose two songs from Harry T. Burleigh’s 1915 “Five Songs of Laurence Hope,” setting the poetry of Hope. Burleigh, as many symphonic music fans know, introduced African American spirituals to Antonín Dvořák, who then proclaimed that that music should be the basis for an American classical style.

Mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis in performance, with violinist Messiah Ahmed and music director/pianist Damien Sneed in background. Image: Andrew Schwartz/Veritography

Bryce-Davis introduced her choices, by living composers, directly addressing the struggles and injustices Black people have endured and still confront, with B.E. Boykin’s “We Wear The Mask” and Peter Ashbourne’s “Nobody’s Business.” She also reminded the audience that spirituals–though uplifting–came from the struggles of navigating a life oppressed.

“That music is how they survived,” she said. 

The performance concluded with Sneed’s arrangement of the beloved spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” with McMillon and Bryce-Davis and quartet, the big finish wrapping up the 90 minute program that exuded love and presence and solidarity.

This was the final performance of this leg of the tour, which picks back up in January. During the concert, Sneed also praised the efforts of educators, acknowledging two of his former teachers in the audience, Linda Banister and David Bezona, now retired, who both live in the area. 

Reviewed Sunday November 20, 2022. “Our Song, Our Story” was presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series at the Folly Theater. 

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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