The rhythm, the lyricism and the gamut of emotion that great poetry evokes are the very characteristics that make verse a great partner in music performance, and Mississippi Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming “American Constellation” Bravo Series concert sets a sterling example, on November 4 at Thalia Mara Hall.
MSO’s collaboration with Jackson State University’s 50th anniversary of the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival enhances the experience overall, with a concert centerpiece that resonates meaning, connection and community legacy.
“Our whole season is about the music and musicians influenced by Mississippi, and the spoken word is a huge part of Mississippi history,” MSO President and Executive Director Jenny Mann says. “Every artistic experience brings you to a certain space, and I think the spoken word really will connect people even more to this feeling of history and connection to America and America’s music, America’s writers and composers.”
In 1973 at JSU, trailblazing poet and author Margaret Walker hosted the first Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival – a groundbreaking conference for Black women writers – celebrating the bicentennial of Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first published volume of poetry by an African American author. Seven of the ten living original participants are returning as keynote participants for the 50th anniversary event November 1-4, with renowned poets Alice Walker and Sonia Sanchez among them. They’ll be paired with the next generation of Black women writers, including Jesmyn Ward, Imani Perry, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Angie Thomas and more.
“It will be the most important cultural and intellectual event of my career,” Margaret Walker Center Director Robert Luckett describes it. “We’re looking forward to the concert as the capstone to what will be a remarkable week.”
MSO salutes this literary legacy with a program that celebrates its creative impact, its national importance and the community’s connection to it. Acclaimed composer/pianist Randy Klein and Broadway and Off-Broadway singer/actress Aurelia Williams will perform four Margaret Walker poems Klein set to music with Williams’ voice in mind. They premiered the songs at JSU a dozen years ago.
“Aurelia has been the principal performer from the very beginning…. She’s thrilled to come back and do it on our main stage,” MSO Music Director and Conductor Crafton Beck says. For this concert, Klein and Williams will be joined by the entire orchestra as well as the Jackson State University Choir, Mississippi College Choir and Rust College Choir.
“In the best poetry and in Margaret Walkers works, there’s always something lyrical about it,” Luckett says. The presentation in a concert setting provides even more resonance “What it does to me, from my own personal perspective, is add one more layer of depth and beauty to it, that also opens that poetry up to a new audience. For patrons who may not have been exposed to Margaret Walker, it breathes a new kind of life to it.” For poetry fans, “It gives them a fresh lens to appreciate it through.”
The concert also features readings of Alice Walker’s “Remember Me?” and Sanchez’s “From a Black Feminist Conference: Reflections on Margaret Walker, Poet,” performed by Jackson poet Amanda Furdge.
Also on the program is Composer Jessie Montgomery’s Source Code which, in a way, parallels the work of the poetry festival, by weaving threads of legacy through a contemporary voice in haunting, beautiful music derived in part from Black spirituals. Beck notes the blues lament and the deep soulfulness he hears in the music, recalling the audience response when MSO performed it at Cade Chapel last season, “It spoke to them. I’m here to tell you, it’s all anybody who was there is still talking about.”
MSO’s “American Constellation” concert with its jazzy opening of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris and rollicking close of four dance selections from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo will play like old favorites. In the songs, poetry and music throughout, listeners will be sure to find new favorites, too.