"This classical roots concert is a unique outreach program to bring the orchestra to the people and trace the musical heritage of black america," read the first program flier 41 years ago. It was 1978 and the Brazeal Dennard Chorale joined the DSO on stage, under conductor Paul Freeman, for the inaugural Classical Roots concert celebration.
Immediately popular, what began as a concert at Detroit’s historic Bethel A.M.E. Church has become a beloved annual tradition at Orchestra Hall since 1981. In 2001, Classical Roots expanded to include a black-tie gala and fundraiser, with luminary African-American musicians, leaders, educators, businesspeople, and philanthropists honored each year.
For the DSO, "outreach" is an active verb. The Classical Roots mission extends far beyond the concert hall, with school visits, chamber recitals, and other initiatives and community events scheduled for the weeks preceding the Celebration.
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“Lift Every Voice and Sing” has been sung by the Celebration Choir and audience at the beginning of every Classical Roots concert since the event’s inauguration in 1978. Voicing the cry for liberation and affirmation for African-American people, the song was declared “The Negro National Anthem” by the NAACP in 1919. It gained new popularity as a protest song during the Civil Rights Movement and was entered into the Congressional Record in the 1990s as the official African-American National Hymn.
Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us, sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on till victory is won.
In his second autobiography Along This Way, James Weldon Johnson describes the emotion in writing “Lift Every Voice and Sing”: “I could not keep back the tears, and made no effort to do so.” He later reported that creating the song’s lyrics was the greatest satisfaction of his life.
George Walker (below) was named the first Classical Roots Honoree in 2001. Walker, who passed away in 2018, was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and his legacy has set the tone for every honoree that has been chosen since.
"My relationship with the DSO has been exceptional and very special."
Since George Walker almost 20 years ago, Classical Roots Honorees have included heroes of African-American music, culture, business, politics, and leadership. Many, like legendary judge Hon. Damon Keith and groundbreaking violinist Regina Carter, have roots in Detroit.
In its 41st year, Dr. William F. Pickard, Detroit philanthropist and founder of the DSO's Arthur L. Johnson Fund for African American Artists, and Dr. Robert A. Harris, composer and Professor of Music, were honored for their lifetime achievement aligned with the Classical Roots mission.
"I live for my students. I exist for them. I love the artform with which I work. I'm here to give what I can."
-Dr. Robert A. Harris
The DSO's African-American Orchestra Fellowship addresses the shortage of African-Americans in professional orchestras. Fellows perform in the orchestra, receive mentorship, participate in mock auditions, and advocate for music in the community. Thanks to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Fellowship expanded in the 18-19 season to include two musicians: Adam Sadberry, flute (left, appointed Acting Principal Flute for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra in fall 2019) and Michael Gause, trumpet (right).
Past fellows have gone on to win positions in orchestras across the United States, including the DSO’s own Principal Trombone Kenneth Thompkins.
"When I found out that I had won a fellowship, I was flabbergasted. The thought that I was going to go straight from completing my undergrad into a position with one of the top orchestras in the country was something that I could hardly believe! I couldn't be happier to be here."
The DSO prides itself on promoting and presenting new music, and this commitment extends to the Classical Roots mission in a few ways. Key among them is the African-American Composer Residency, which was inaugurated in the early 1990s and revived within recent years to highlight the many African-American composers working in today's music world.
2019's Composer-in-Residence was Jonathan Bailey Holland, whose piece Forged Sanctuaries: String Quartet No. 2 was performed at a chamber recital at Plymouth United Church of Christ. Holland also visited classrooms to speak to Detroit schoolchildren and participated in the EarShot symposium (see below for more).
YOUNG FRIENDS COMMITTEE
The production of Classical Roots requires the dedicated leadership of the Classical Roots Steering Committee, a 40-person volunteer group, this year co-chaired by Keith Mobley and Jasmin DeForrest.
For more than a decade, the Classical Roots Young Friends Committee has worked among the ranks of the Steering Committee and now comprises 20% of the Steering Committee.
29-year-old Young Friend Elizabeth Mays, Editor in Chief of MAYS Multimedia, says she sees that number increasing. "Participation from young professionals is a vital element of keeping the Steering Committee alive," says Mays. "Involvement in the Committee is an opportunity to gain wisdom from incredible leaders and we are able to provide important cultural feedback from the millennial perspective."
In 2019, the Young Friends championed two Classical Roots-related concerts in The Cube, a tribute to composer George Walker and a performance by Mumu Fresh.
"Will you search for the answers or take what they hand us?"
-Mumu Fresh, from Say My Name
The Young Friends also organized a shopping and music fundraiser at The Peacock Room flagship store in the historic Fisher Building, raising several hundred dollars for Classical Roots efforts and the African-American Orchestra Fellowship.
Barber Dante Williams' first experience seeing a live orchestra was at Classical Roots in 2018, and he was blown away by the artistry: "The diversity and professionalism had me in awe."
Dante and his wife Rachelle volunteer with Crescendo Detroit, a local non-profit seeking to transform the lives of youth by offering intense instrumental music, vocal music, and dance programs, and they decided Crescendo kids, including their own four daughters, should experience what they had at the DSO.
Fast-forward to 2019's Classical Roots Celebration concert and Dante was onsite at Crescendo giving free haircuts to the kids who would be attending that night. "The confidence that comes with a nice haircut can really boost the morale of a kid. When you look good, you feel good," says Dante.
"It was a very proud and happy moment for me to see the kids all dressed up and excited to be there. Most of them have never been to such a place or event. They were really able to see how all the instruments they're learning come together to create an awesome sound."
In 2019, the DSO collaborated to host EarShot: a residency initiative that identifies and promotes promising orchestral composers. Over seven onsite days at the DSO, participating composers Brian Raphael Nabors, Marian L. Harrison Stephens, Anthony Tidd, and Kerwin Young worked with teaching artists (including Jonathan Bailey Holland), participated in career development workshops, and heard their pieces performed onstage at two orchestra readings.
"I have been in love with the detroit symphony for quite some time and have always admired their diligence of promoting diversity, culturally enriching musical experiences, and overall support of new music. I very much look forward to what this experience will bring."
EarShot is presented by the American Composers Orchestra in partnership with American Composers Forum, League of American Orchestras, and New Music USA.
During the 2019 concert, CEO Anne Parsons announced that Dr. William F. Pickard, who established the DSO’s Arthur L. Johnson Fund for African-American Artists with an initial contribution of $500,000 in 2012, was doubling his gift for a total of $1 million in support of the endowment fund.
Named for the late civil rights activist, co-founder of Classical Roots, and mentor to Dr. Pickard, the Arthur Johnson Fund provides support for the DSO to perform, commission, and record works by African-American composers and to feature African-American guest artists—not just during Classical Roots, but throughout the year.
In recognition of Dr. Pickard’s generosity, the DSO announced that henceforth the annual Classical Roots Celebration will be named in honor of two of Dr. Pickard’s biggest mentors: the Dr. Arthur L. Johnson and Honorable Damon Jerome Keith Classical Roots Celebration.