How D.C.’s classical scene is celebrating Black History Month

Progress in the classical world is nothing if not andante — change, when it comes, takes its sweet time.

At the peak of the pandemic, a push against racial disparity spread across the world of classical music and opera, a renewed call for equity that sharpened into a demand for action. Finally registering the pressure, orchestras across the nation vowed to address and redress glaring issues of representation both within the ranks of orchestras and on their programs.

At long last, we’re starting to see some results. According to the League of American Orchestras, between the 2016-2017 and 2022-2023 seasons, the number of Black composers programmed by orchestras increased from 0.3 percent to 10.3 percent — with representation of living composers of color rising from 1.5 percent to 11 percent. While orchestras continue to struggle to diversify, programming changes have helped to shed vital light on a rich history of Black composers and artists.

Below, find a selection of upcoming concerts to check out during Black History Month in the D.C. area. Some are directly related to Black History Month celebrations, and others are simply well-timed opportunities to hear Black artists and composers making musical history of their own.

Bak, Sadberry and Jackson at Phillips

The Phillips Collection continues a strong season in the Music Room with an alluringly varied program featuring three top young talents: violist Jordan Bak, flutist Adam Sadberry (who was featured in our “23 for ’23” roundup of rising classical stars) and harpist Ashley Jackson. On Feb. 4, the trio will tackle a sonata and “Sonatine” from Debussy and Ravel, respectively. But Bak will take over the program’s second half with a trio of solo works for viola from Elliot Carter, Jeffrey Mumford (whose “stillness echoing” for viola and harp will also get its world premiere) and the young American composer Tyson Gholston Davis. In-person tickets are already sold out, but virtual tickets for the afternoon live stream are available.

Joseph Parrish and Damien Sneed

On Feb. 6 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, Washington Performing Arts and Young Concert Artists (with the Coalition for African Americans in the Performing Arts) team up for one of the more intriguing vocal recitals of the season. Fast-rising bass-baritone Joseph Parrish, who in 2022 won the prestigious Susan Wadsworth Young Concert Artists International Auditions, will be accompanied by composer, pianist and Chorale Le Chateau founding director Damien Sneed (whose “Our Song, Our Story” was a highlight of last year’s Black History Month offerings). Parrish will sing a program of German and Russian lieder, a world premiere by Alistair Coleman, and a selection of spirituals that welcome Michele Fowlin’s Children of the Gospel Choir to the stage.

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Jeri Lynne Johnson and Valerie Coleman

On Feb. 10 at Strathmore Music Center, Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra founder Jeri Lynne Johnson visits the National Philharmonic for an epic pairing: Dvořák’s 1885 Symphony No. 7 in D minor and Valerie Coleman’s “Phenomenal Women: Concerto for Wind Quintet Soli and Chamber Orchestra.” The latter, premiered by Coleman’s own Imani Winds in 2018, is a musical tribute to a quintet of Black women: Maya Angelou (whose book and poem inspired the piece), mathematician Katherine Johnson, tennis champion Serena Williams, Olympic boxer Claressa Shields and former first lady Michelle Obama. Coleman, herself a Grammy-nominated flutist, will be on hand to lead the piece with an ensemble of players from the Phil.

‘Harlem’s Little Blackbird’

For a family-friendly musical entree to Black History Month, it would be hard to outdo this Sunday afternoon concert from the Chiarina Chamber Players. On Feb. 11 at St. Mark’s Capitol Hill, the ensemble will perform a setting by Sandra Nikolajevs of Renée Watson’s popular 2021 children’s book, “Harlem’s Little Blackbird.” Through the music of Scott Joplin and H.T. Burleigh, the piece relates the story of Florence Mills — the jazz-age cabaret singer, dancer, comedian (and D.C. native) known as the “Queen of Happiness.” The ensemble will also perform works by Duke Ellington, William Grant Still, John Novacek, Leonard Bernstein and Dvořák.

Damien Sneed makes another appearance this month conducting the Gateway Chamber Players, who come to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Feb. 13 as part of the Fortas Chamber Music Concerts. Featuring players from the Gateways Music Festival — an Eastman-affiliated organization that “connects and supports professional classical musicians of African descent,” now in its 30th year — the ensemble includes musicians from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Imani Winds (bassoonist Monica Ellis), the Phoenix Symphony and more. For this program, which features guest artists and narrator Phylicia Rashad, the ensemble focuses on two vastly different but interrelated tales: Igor Stravinsky’s 1918 “L’Histoire du Soldat” (“The Soldier’s Tale”) suite and Wynton Marsalis’s 1998 response to Stravinsky, “A Fiddler’s Tale.”

On Feb. 14, Vocal Arts DC brings the area recital debut of renowned tenor Russell Thomas to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. A modern master of Puccini and Verdi, Thomas has just wrapped a turn singing the lead in the Houston Grand Opera production of “Parsifal.” Accompanied by pianist Lucas Nogara, Thomas will sing a program including Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” Jasmine Barnes’s “Love and Light,” and songs by Henri Duparc and Richard Strauss. It’s a great opportunity to catch Thomas before he returns to the stage to sing Radames in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “Aida” this spring and Calàf in Los Angeles Opera’s “Aida” this summer.

‘Living the Dream … Singing the Dream’

It wouldn’t be Black History Month without “Living the Dream … Singing the Dream.” Annually presented by Washington Performing Arts and Choral Arts, this enduring and beloved choral tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. returns to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Feb. 18 and assembles the combined forces of the Washington Performing Arts Gospel Choirs (under artistic directors Theodore Thorpe III and Michele Fowlin) and the Choral Arts Society of Washington. Expect soaring singing, moving tributes and testimonies, and (if you do it right) a hoarse throat the next morning.

Worth mentioning is the busy schedule of Black History Month performances scheduled for the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage throughout the month. While not entirely classical, the lineup gathers a genre-spanning variety of artists worth hearing. Nonbinary country upstart Autumn Nichols performs on Feb. 15. Multifaceted artist and improviser Lonnie Holley appears Feb. 16. D.C.’s premier go-go band Rare Essence takes the stage Feb. 17. The Liberated Muse Arts Group — led by Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman, the 2023-2026 Poet Laureate of Prince George’s County — presents “Voices of Freedom and Resistance” on Feb. 22. Konshens the MC presents “Classically Dope,” a program that blends classical music poetry, hip-hop, soul and jazz, on Feb. 23. And blues innovator Buffalo Nichols performs on Feb. 24.

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