Vincent Danner, conductor of the Memphis Youth Symphony, can hardly wait for Saturday. That's when he, his musicians, and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra will celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday with their 10th annual tribute concert.
"Moving to the Cannon Center downtown allows us to do more artistic things," Danner explains. And the move sets the stage for composer Daniel Bernard Roumain's Hip Hop Essay for Orchestra, Part II, which originally premiered under Danner's lead of the Memphis Youth Orchestra in September 1996.
The composition, sandwiched between a selection from the late Arkansan William Grant Still (the first African American to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra) and a series of choral arrangements, is guaranteed to shake things up Saturday night.
Danner, who also serves as associate conductor for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, says, "I spent a lot of time thinking about the programming for this event. I love doing concerts where every piece is different, and I deliberately placed Hip Hop Essay at a particular place in the evening for dramatic reasons."
"The Hip Hop Essay is going to raise some eyebrows," Danner admits. It will be interesting to see how regular symphony patrons react to the rhythmically driven, thoroughly modern composition, which takes listeners far from the typically classical fare they expect to hear at such an event.
"It's a cross-generational, creative piece, which makes it a very appropriate part of the MLK celebration," Danner says. "The programming for this event -- from the community choruses to the musical selections -- is all about diversity. 'I have a dream,' King's own message, is one of inclusion and celebration."
"The Memphis Symphony really is a gem in the sense that it's a very diverse orchestra in what it does, covering everything from Mahler to Pops," Danner continues. "This region has produced so many African-American composers and classical musicians. The Memphis Symphony has an advantage when it can tap into that history."
"But," Danner adds, "there aren't many African-Americans involved" in the current local symphony scene. "It's not because of a lack of interest," he claims, citing a series of free African-American and Hispanic concerts he guest-conducted with the Dallas Symphony. "Every seat was filled at those events. In fact, I conducted Hip Hop Essay with the Dallas Symphony, and the audience went nuts over it!"
Like similar orchestras around the country, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and the Memphis Youth Orchestra are doing what they can to reach a younger, broader audience. "We started a student-pricing program for our Masterworks series and that really has helped," Danner says. "I looked out at the crowd during our first concert this season and saw nothing but college students," the 37-year-old conductor says. "Our inclusion of Hip Hop Essay should also draw attention. It will be interesting -- and a lot of fun to perform."
Roumain agrees. "Classical music has to redefine itself big-time," the Chicago-born, New York-based composer says. "Whether or not young people become regular concertgoers, they will say 'oh' when they hear a piece like Hip Hop Essay."
The Memphis audience can expect to hear percussion, piano, strings, piccolo, flutes, oboes, clarinets, French horns, trumpets, trombones, and tuba in the piece. "I approach the orchestra like a synthesizer," Roumain says of all the instruments, "establishing patterns instead of using loops and samples."
He calls Hip Hop Essay "very complicated music."
"I've been doing an analysis of it, breaking down the composition into its essential elements for different conductors," Roumain explains. "I used to put a lot of text in with the music -- 'Play this part like Prince,' or whatever. But now it's just about the [musical] notes. Hopefully, it will sound fresh and new and different wherever it's performed."
As a composer, Roumain delves into worlds that most classical musicians simply dream about. As the musical director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, he's staged his own Reading, Mercy, and The Artificial Nigger, while the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet premiered his Ghetto Strings, and the Orchestra of St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble commissioned and performed his Fast Black Dance Machine. Roumain also collaborated with turntablist DJ Spooky for Optometry, which is available on CD.
"I don't know if I'm a hip-hop composer or a classically trained musician who happens to be into new music," Roumain muses. "In a way, I'm just a songwriter."
"I'm really lucky," he adds. "Not everybody's gonna love everything I do, but for the most part, people have really embraced it."
Saturday's concert also will provide a unique opportunity for another up-and-coming African-American musician, 18-year-old violinist Gareth Johnson. "He's a very talented player," Danner says of the youngster, who swept the prestigious 2002 Sphinx Competition for minority soloists, as well as the '02 New World Symphony High School Concerto Competition and the Lynn University Concerto Competition. Johnson will perform the Bruch Concerto No. 1 in G Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 26, as well as the Memphis premiere of "Mother and Child" from Still's Suite for Violin and Orchestra.
Congressman Harold Ford Jr. will also take part in the MLK tribute, narrating Joseph Schwantner's work New Morning for the World: Daybreak of Freedom, which was first performed in King's honor at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
The 10th annual Dr. Martin Luther King tribute concert begins at 7 p.m. on Saturday, January 17th, at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. Advance tickets are $10 for adults and $7 for seniors or students, while tickets at the door will run $15 and $10, respectively.