PSO celebrates Black heritage in tribute

Sophie Perrino | Staff Writer | Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra celebrates performers of color in tribute concert.

Sophie Perrino | Staff Writer

Oct. 27, 2022

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Lift Every Voice Unity Choir performed a memorable show Saturday night that featured local artists, activists and prodigies, honoring the past and present of Pittsburgh’s Black community.

“Lift Every Voice,” conducted by Kellen Gray and hosted by Kendra Ross and Garfield Lemonius, featured incredible musicians who debuted with the symphony, including Josh Jones on the marimba, rapper Jasiri X and soloist Curtis Lewis Jr.

The concert series’ primary goals were to promote equity within the Pittsburgh arts and music community by sharing the music of Black artists, giving more representation to Black musicians of Pittsburgh especially.

The concert kicked off with “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” originally composed by brothers James Welson Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson. The audience rose as the LEV Unity Choir delivered a powerful message as one blended voice.

The piece, used during the Civil Rights protests of the ’50s and ’60s, was adopted by the NAACP as the national anthem for African Americans.

Nikki Porter, an alumnus of Duquesne’s School of Business and former vocal jazz student, is the choir’s director, who has brought singers from across Pittsburgh together to perform gospel music for “Lift Every Voice” since 2018. She has been working in music since she started Duquesne’s Gospel Joy Notes choir as a college student.

Porter is an advocate for social justice, whose music is a celebration of the rich heritage of Black citizens in America. “I’m standing for justice,” she told Jim Cunningham in an interview with WQED-FM 89.3, “I’m standing for the right to be Black in America.”

A major highlight of the show was a three-movement Vivaldi concerto, featuring Jones on the marimba. Jones delivered an unbelievable performance and stunned the audience with his ability to play extremely fast across multiple octaves.

Jones, who deservedly received a standing ovation, hails from Chicago, and has been a percussionist since the age of three. After receiving his Bachelor’s of Music from DePaul University, he began fellowships with the Pittsburgh and Detroit symphonies before becoming the Kansas City Symphony’s Principal Percussionist two years ago.

The concert is a way to celebrate diversity and pay “tribute and homage to those who came before us,” choir member Bryan Keys said.

Fellow vocalist Brendan Williams said he wants the audience to notice “not just the musicality of [the songs], but the actual lyrics, and be encouraged by [them].” Keys agreed, adding that having a diverse group of people making music together “is the American experience.”

Mark Graves, who is singing with the choir for the first time this year, added that the purpose of coming together to share music with a wider community is to “show love” and affirm that “every life matters.”

During the concert, the short film “As I Please” premiered, accompanied by the symphony playing a piece Kathryn Bostic composed for the project. The film, based on an oral history project focusing on the elder women of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, was written by Jessica Lanay, and directed and edited by Njaimeh Njie and consulting producer and consulting editor Johanna Giebelhaus.

Lanay has worked with the LEV concerts before, having contributed her writing which details the truths of being a Black woman in modern-day America. In her pre-concert discussion on Saturday, she had conversations with women who have lived in the Hill District.

“As I Please” is the story of a Black woman, played and voiced by Karla Payne, who lives in the Hill District and has a vision of the queen of Sheba, portrayed by Jacqueline Walker, who represents the powerful version of herself she aspires to be. During the film, she begins to imagine herself as the queen and explores her everyday life with this newfound empowerment.

The hosts of this year’s concert had impactful messages to share as well. This was Lemonius’ first time as a host. As a professional dancer, professor and Dean and Artistic Director of Point Park’s Conservatory of Performing Arts, he believes that “it’s important to wake up every day and know that what you’re doing is going to impact someone else.”

“We have to be good neighbors,” Ross said about her work as Duolingo’s Head of Social Impact, emphasizing that Pittsburgh is a great city in part because there are so many different groups who come together to contribute to it.

Ross has been working with the PSO’s “Lift Every Voice” programs since 2017 and said she believes that this event is significant because it “has brought together people from different backgrounds” and “different kinds of artistic practices.”

“It’s about amplifying all the voices in the community,” Lemonius said.

The concert concluded with an energetic and soulful arrangement of “Glory” from Selma, composed by John Stephens, Lonnie Lynn and Che Smith. The LEV Unity Choir was joined by Lewis and Jasiri X as soloists. Lewis also showcased his wide range on a solo alongside the Choir for Sam Cooke’s “Change is Gonna Come.”

Jasiri X is a hip-hop artist and the first of which to receive an honorary doctorate. He is a strong advocate for equality and justice and spreads his powerful messages through songs such as “Strange Fruit” and “Justice for Trayvon,” which are dedicated to the young, Black citizens who were killed in instances of police brutality. He is the co-founder of 1Hood Media, which aims to “identify, develop and inspire” young artists and activists in the Pittsburgh area.

“Lift Every Voice” will return to the PSO next year and continue its mission of spreading a sense of togetherness to the communities of Pittsburgh.

Upcoming symphony community concerts include “Last Stop on Market Street” on Nov. 2, adapted from a children’s book by the same name about a boy who meets a variety of different people on the bus and learns the importance of acceptance and compassion.

The next Fiddlesticks Family Concert on Nov. 5 will include Duquesne graduate Kory Antonacci as a featured soloist.