For the first time in three years the Durham Symphony Orchestra graced the historic stage of the Hayti Heritage Center on Sunday afternoon, bringing a most inspiring and one-of-a-kind program to the welcoming audience. The Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice cosponsored this auspicious event, part of the DSO’s Hayti Chamber Music Tribute series. This was the sixth annual tribute concert Maestro Curry has designed and presented at Hayti as part of the series, focusing each year on different African-American artists or cultural themes.  Past tributes have featured Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington,  Ella Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Nina Simone, and a tribute to Mardi Gras and Southern artistic creativity. Video excerpts and commentary on many of these programs can be found in the Monday Musicale section of the orchestra’s website.

Durham’s own gender fluid, African-American activist Pauli Murray – poet, educator, lawyer, and priest – was the focal point of the program. And that, in itself, would be a lot! But listeners were also treated to four world premieres by North Carolina composers. This was certainly one of the most important concerts of the DSO season, as the orchestra continues to be a leading organization in its contemporary programming. In addition to continuing the Hayti Center’s mission to preserve the heritage of the historic Hayti District of Durham (once dubbed the “Black Wall Street” by Booker T. Washington) with music written by and honoring African Americans, the afternoon’s concert also featured music by two Indian Americans, both children of immigrants.

Maestro William Henry Curry began the program with the premiere performance of Apex resident Rajan Somasundaram‘s “Yathum Oore.” (Somasundaram also wore the hat of very talented singer!) The text from the Tamil poet Kanian Pungundran (c.6th century BCE) is thought to be one of the first to express concepts of equality. Somasundaram’s expressive singing, facial emotiveness, and hand gestures voiced the depth of the moving work. Unfortunately, the cordless mic set up on stage stopped working half way through the performance. No worries! Somasundaram was unfazed and professionally continued on.

“No Name in the Street” was written by another Triangle native, Robert Rankin. This powerful piece was inspired by Rankin’s deep dive into the history of the Hayti District, and its vibrancy after the Civil War through the 1950s, when urbanization cut the district in half with the construction of the Durham Freeway. Indeed, the beautiful Hayti Center butts right up against the Durham Freeway. (I encourage those not familiar with this historic site to visit and witness the beauty of the old church sanctuary, view work by local artists, and read about the deep history of the district.)

In “No Name in the Street,” Rankin has created a sound world that is meant to reflect the history of the Hayti District, from a very calm and peaceful theme that becomes more chaotic and distorted. Effective devices such as the brass imitating the sound of a strong blowing wind and strings playing an eerie glide down the fingerboard gave the sense of something important leaving – blowing away, disappearing. Rankin’s work is an attempt to express the importance of keeping something alive “even when outside forces greater than us attempt to eliminate them.” This piece really hit home in this time when we are witnessing the elimination of Ukraine right before our eyes. There was intense concentration and fine playing from the orchestra.

In his first orchestral work, “In the Beauty of the Morning,” Arvind Subramaniam has devised a beautiful modern tone poem in which he ably expresses the sounds and feelings of his early years spending time with his grandparents in India. It began with the tinkling of a tiny bell and built from there with Subramaniam playing the solo saxophone to mimic the early morning prayers being sung. This uplifting work includes the clever use of water being poured from one metal container to another (chai tea being poured), the mooing of a cow, and orchestra members calling out randomly as one would hear in the street. It is a beautiful tribute to the life and “organized chaos of the world around” his childhood memories. With moments of fantastic liveliness, this is a thoroughly new and enjoyable work. I look forward to hearing this piece again.

After intermission, we were treated to a tribute to Pauli Murray with film shorts that described aspects of their life. Murray moved to Durham to be raised by their aunt in 1914 at the age of four. They later attended Hillside High with honors. In spite of being rejected from several university programs (either because of their race or their sex), Murray was the first female-presenting person* to graduate from Howard Law School. Suffice it to say if you aren’t familiar with this Renaissance person, do yourself a favor to dig deeper into their life and work. They were a first at many things, not only a brilliant legal mind, but an activist, poet and eventually an Episcopal priest. They were also transgender and their work for equality was tenacious and deserves to be better known.

Pulling together this multimedia event was Dasan Ahanu, founder of Durham-based Black Poetry Theatre and modern-day social justice activist, who gave several readings of Murray’s own letters and significant poems with great intensity and emotion.

Curry’s orchestral work, Dark Testament, is inspired by Murray’s poem “Dark Testament” and pays homage to African-American icons:  Mahalia Jackson, Pauli Murray, and Harriet Tubman. Movement one, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” is dedicated to singer Jackson, an important figure not only in the “Golden Age of Gospel,” but also in many civil rights causes. This movement is exciting, defiant, and full of confidence. Movement two, “Love and Loss,” is inspired by Pauli Murray. It is beautiful, poignant and complicated, much like its muse, and references the Spiritual “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” a nod to the fact that Murray was an orphan. The final movement, “The Underground Railroad,” gives tribute to Harriet Tubman and included an awesome train whistle played effectively by percussionist Ken Morehead.

Throughout, Curry gave the audience interesting background on all of the works. It was very clear that Curry, soloists, and orchestra were completely invested in the afternoon’s offering, giving us their all, for which the audience was grateful.

Kudos to Marianne Ward for the excellent program notes and the magnificent program booklet. Congratulations on this successful, informative, and moving concert and thanks so much for promoting North Carolina and contemporary talent.

*CVNC has chosen to use they/them/theirs pronouns to reflect the complexity of Murray’s gender identity. The use of pronouns for Pauli Murray is an ongoing discussion among the Pauli Murray Center. According to the Center, “Murray self-described as a ‘he/she personality’ in correspondence with family members. For years, Murray requested – and was denied – testosterone injections and hormone therapy, as well as exploratory surgery to investigate their reproductive organs, believing that they may have been intersex.” At the time of their graduation for Howard Law School, Murray was generally expressing themself as female.