Teaching young people of color to embrace classical music.


Louis Tucker


It's fitting that the current PRIZM International Chamber Music Festival is not taking place during Black History Month. "That always upsets me because I'm black all year," says PRIZM Ensemble founder and teacher Lecolion Washington. "Why aren't we playing William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, or Florence Price all the time? We get the black people in February and women in March. But in most of our programs, we feature people of color or by women."

Washington and PRIZM are eager for more young people of color to embrace the classical tradition and for the classical tradition to embrace them. "What we really want to do is have young people in the audience see that there are wonderful black women who are, say, concert violinists. So, if you are a young black girl who plays violin, you may not believe that is something you can become. And so we say, 'Yes, you can become that! Because here is one, and she did it and she did it and she did it, and this fourth one over here, she did it, so why not you?'"

To this end, PRIZM brings artists from all over the world to Memphis, combining a concert series with a summer music camp and using an ensemble that "looks like Memphis." Washington, a bassoonist and instructor himself, notes that this helps connect the city with a nationwide movement. "There are so few African-American classical musicians in the country that most of us know each other. There are certain programs that happen every year or every other year — there's one in Detroit called the Sphinx Symphony; there's a program in Rochester called the Gateways Music Festival. A lot of us know each other from all these other programs. So, essentially, what we're doing is putting Memphis on the circuit."

This means bringing in professionals from as nearby as the Nashville Symphony or as far as the Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra. During the camp, visiting faculty teach high school and early college students from the Memphis area, then rehearse and perform with them. It culminates in a series of shows this weekend, including concerts showcasing the camp students on Friday and Saturday at First Baptist on Broad. The culmination of the festival will be on Father's Day, also at First Baptist, and June 19th ("Juneteenth") at the historic Clayborn Temple, when the all-star faculty will perform as the PRIZM Chamber Orchestra. The latter two shows will feature pieces by Mozart, local composer Jerald Walker (a PRIZM summer camp alum), and a powerful new work for orchestra and men's chorus by Joel Thompson, titled "Seven Last Words of the Unarmed."

This last piece, a graceful, gut-wrenching eulogy, has movements bearing the names of Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, and others. The motifs are built around their final words: "Why do you have your guns out?" "Mom, I'm going to college." "I can't breathe." For the Juneteenth performance, Clayborn Temple will display Ernest Withers' photographs of the 1968 Sanitation Workers' Strike, among other subjects. Both nights will close with "Glory" (Common and John Legend's Oscar-winning song for the film Selma), emphasizing, Washington says, "the hope, dreams, and resilience rooted in what it means to be American." Justin Merrick will be featured as the vocal soloist.

Ultimately, Washington is hopeful about the progress PRIZM is making. "Memphis has a lot of really great people in it who understand that inequities exist and are looking for ways to help," he says. "All that PRIZM does is give them a place where they can plug in."

PRIZM student ensembles will perform on June 16th and 17th at First Baptist Church on Broad Avenue. The PRIZM Chamber Orchestra will perform there on June 18th, and at Clayborn Temple on June 19th.

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