‘Tears to my eyes’ – setting Margaret Walker’s words to song

‘Tears to my eyes’ – setting Margaret Walker’s words to song

Aundi Marie Moore gives voice to Margaret Walker’s words, just as Maestro Crafton Beck puts music to her poetry, in songs premiering in Bravo IV’s Truth and Flame concert March 5.

Moore, a soprano and Virginia native who made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2020, relishes the chance to share new music and a timeless message from a gifted poet.

“I’m so glad that Crafton introduced me to her work,” says Moore, a crossover artist at home in both operatic and musical theater repertoire. “It’s easy to paint the colors that she has written — he put it in the music.”

Award-winning poet and novelist Walker, an Alabama native, was part of the Chicago Black Renaissance, an African American literary and artistic movement in the 1930s and ‘40s shaped by the Great Migration. Her 30-year teaching career at Jackson State University included the founding of an institute devoted to the study of Black history, life and culture — the center that now bears her name at JSU.

From the rhythm and flow of Walker’s words to the poems’ musical imagery of ballads, blues and spirituals, the jump from page to performance seems a given. “There’s something about her writing that is very, very lyrical,” Beck says. “It wants to be sung.” 

He’d been struck by Walker’s “amazing, beautiful, relevant-as-ever poetry” from the start. “Never mind that so much of it refers to Mississippi and Farish Street in Jackson. I was just taken by the relevance of all this, and how much it needs to be brought forth,” he says. His composition Three Songs on Poems by Margaret Walker — with her works Southern Song, Ex-Slave and My Truth and My Flame (I Am a Black Woman) — was commissioned by Nora Frances and Vaughan McRae.

“It’s not about the music. It’s about the words,” says Beck, who aimed for an accessible musical style — more mainstream than operatic — as the vehicle.

That works beautifully for Moore, whose musical idols include Audra McDonald, Judy Garland and Julie Andrews, as well as Denyce Graves, Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed as an opera singer. I love the crossover repertoire,” says Moore.

She was just in 2nd grade when a teacher noticed her vocal gift, and gave her a spot to shine in class, with My Country, ’Tis of Thee. “Every day, that was my moment. My teacher told my mom, ‘I think you need to get this girl some voice lessons.’” 

Moore was singing classically by age 9, and winning competitions by age 11. Her parents were supportive, but wondered if she could make a living with the art form. When it earned her a full-ride college scholarship, they were convinced. “My mom was like, ‘Sing on, baby. Sing on!’”

“It takes some time for parents, especially being African American,” Moore says. “Classical is not the go-to in my culture.” She embraces the opportunities and privileges her career brings — different characters, new languages, world travel, the doors it opens. The look of wonder on audience faces — that’s fun, too.

New compositions bring a unique challenge, with a path that can be both hard and liberating, she says. “The beauty of modern music is that the composers are alive,” and can address any issue that comes up. With no YouTube clip to watch or track to follow, “I can create my own imagery, my own style. How do I want to convey it?” she says. “I can be me.”

Of their collaboration, Beck says, “She’s been an absolute delight.”

These songs resonate with Moore, particularly My Truth and My Flame. It begins “I am a Black woman,” followed by Walker’s poignant, poetic descriptions of strength and resilience. When Moore sang it, “That just brought tears to my eyes, I was so proud.”

Two Debussy works — Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune and Children’s Corner — and Brahms’ lyrical Symphony No. 2 provide a fitting framework to showcase the suite of songs.

This concert, the first of two in partnership with Mississippi Museum of Art recognizing southern artists, is complemented with a free pre-concert event from 5:00 to 7:15 pm at the Museum. The program will feature an insightful conversation about Margaret Walker’s life and work between scholar Dr. Maryemma Graham, University of Kansas professor, and Dr. Ebony Lumumba, Jackson State University English professor and department chair. Dr. Graham is the author of the upcoming monumental biography on Walker, The House Where My Soul Lives. Enjoy the program, then stroll next door for the concert!

 

Truth & Flame
3.5.22 / Thalia Mara Hall / 7:30 pm / Jackson, MS / Tickets $29 & up: buy online here >

Concert program:

  • Claude Debussy: Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune
  • Claude Debussy: Children’s Corner
  • Crafton Beck: Three Songs on Poems by Margaret Walker
    Aundi Marie Moore, soprano
  • Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 2

If you prefer distanced seating, please select available seats in Sections I or IV of the Lower Balcony when purchasing tickets online.

MSO is committed to the health and safety of our community, our patrons, and our musicians. We continue to monitor CDC guidelines, as well as those initiated by state, city, and county authorities. If you are feeling sick, have been exposed to someone with covid, or think you may have covid, we kindly ask that you stay home. Masks are required at Thalia Mara Hall and MUST be worn throughout the performance.