“ I wanted to say something more personal, less abstract, and utterly direct. ”Davóne Tines
“Before I was a singer, I was a violinist for 14 years. I deeply love the broader orchestral repertoire and, as a young person, dreamed of performing concertos with major orchestras. When I became a singer, I didn’t want to leave that dream behind. With Concerto No. 1: SERMON, I wanted to begin to explore what it might mean for a singer to dialogue with an orchestra in the same way.
The complication that singing adds is the likely necessity of words. And with the addition of words, there is the likely addition of explicit meaning. If a concerto is essentially a statement made by a soloist in dialogue with an orchestra, then what could be expressed if this notion of a ‘statement’ is made more literal or even more personal through words? Should the words be poetic? Prose? Abstract? Direct? The notion of an abstract personal statement is intrinsic in the instrumental (e.g. wordless) concerto form. Solo instrumentalist artists have been doing this for centuries via their readings and interpretations of wordless musical texts. We surmise that we get a sense of an individual artist’s persona and personality through their interpretation. Some appreciate the anonymity that abstraction affords the artist and audience alike, but for me, as an artist of classical music in a fraught contemporary context, I find there is an incredible opportunity and need for a classical artist to be in direct, unmitigated, intentional, and non-abstract communication with an audience. So, what did I want to say?
In the Fall of 2020, I was invited by Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin to perform John Adams’s The Wound Dresser. That beautiful, impressionistic piece, made on a text by Walt Whitman, can be understood as an extolling of the importance of care; but at the particular time, after yet another resurgence in attention paid to the undue deaths of Black people at the hands of police, this time Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, I wanted to say something more personal, less abstract, and utterly direct.
I decided to explore the idea of delivering a sermon to speak to the majority white audience I would encounter; to make an appeal to that group which holds the most power and accountability in the matters of systemic and institutionalized racist violence.
There’s a lot of different kinds of sermons, and I chose the idea of an exegesis sermon, the tradition I was most familiar with growing up in the Black Baptist church of rural Northern Virginia. In an exegesis, a speaker takes scriptures and expounds on them in order to share a principle or value. I wanted to share with an audience what it might mean to be a marginalized identity, wanting to be able to exist in a way in spite of marginalization. So, in order to tell that story, I chose three different poetic and prose texts by Black writers to serve as ‘scriptures,’ and paired them with three arias or songs that elucidate the texts.
The program starts with a text by James Baldwin excerpted from his A Letter to My Nephew used to introduce his book The Fire Next Time. In the text, Baldwin explores an idea of what it might mean or imply for marginalized people to exist beyond the fixed roles prescribed by their marginalization. That text is followed by John Adams’s Shake the Heavens from his El Niño oratorio which sonically shows a person moving into humanity almost by force, by shaking the heavens and the earth and disrupting reality or the majority expected identity of said person. The next text is a short poem by Langston Hughes titled Hope. The idea being that a Black person claiming humanity isn’t a violent act, but rather a simple, human act. And what more human act is there than expressing emotion? And in this particular song, I wanted to express the human emotion of hope.
Then there’s an interrogation. At the golden mean, there’s a moment where the audience is asked to contend with the fact that myself or someone of a marginalized identity even ever feels the need to defend their humanity in the first place. The audience has seen me announce my humanity, then demonstrate, and now I ask: ‘Why do I still feel the need to prove my humanity to you?’ I asked my dear colleague and incredible writer jessica Care moore to create a text in response to that question. This text is in lineage with the text of an aria I premiered from John Adams’s opera Girls of the Golden West based on an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’s staggering 1852 speech What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?, which states: ‘Is it not astonishing that, while we are ploughing, planting and reaping,... living, moving, acting, thinking,... we are called upon to prove that we are men!’
What does it mean for someone to be existent in a place where they feel they need to defend the basic fact that they’re human? This critical sentiment is brilliantly expressed in the main aria from Anthony Davis’s X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X titled ‘You want the truth, but you don’t want to know.’ The aria spells out that the crime and violence Malcolm X is accused of is a reflection of the systemically dehumanizing violence that was enacted upon him and his family for his entire life.
So, hopefully this direct personal statement, delivered as a sermon, in the form of a concerto, provokes the audience to question their complicity in a society that continues, through generations, to provoke marginalized people, Black people, to prove that we are deserving of the so-called inalienable rights afforded to those who are undeniably human.”
This performance marks the DSO premiere of Concerto No. 1: SERMON devised by Davóne Tines.
Concerto No. 1: SERMON is presented as part of the 45th Classical Roots concert program