Last night, in the auditorium at North Community High School, a gospel choir sang. A spoken-word poet recited a piece. A woman told a story. In between, a string quartet strummed their instruments, a woodwind quintet performed a couple of pieces, and a high schooler read a poem by one of his classmates. These disparate parts all came together as a wondrous whole to form the Northside Celebration, a collaboration between the Capri Theater in North Minneapolis and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra March 18 and 19, 2017.
Sanford Moore, a North Minneapolis composer, arranger, and pianist, served as director for this concert. The main ensembles were the Northside Celebration Choir, specially formed for this event and conducted by G. Phillip Shoultz III, and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO). In addition to these, Sherri R. Orr served as an assistant conductor, and Tish Jones, Yolande Bruce, Nothando Zulu, Dakoka Jewell, Joshua Gillespie, and Desdamona all performed in various solo roles.
“The best is yet to come,” Dennis Spears, artistic director of the Capri’s Legends series and national jazz performing artist, said in his introduction after the first piece, a choral arrangement of “Keep Your Hand on the Plow.” And he was right. After the welcome, a string quartet from the SPCO made up of Daria T. Adams and Kayla Moffett on violin, Hyobi Sim on viola, and Sarah Lewis on cello played “Strum” by Jessie Montgomery. A contemporary piece by a woman composer of color, it employs repeated ostinato rhythms and various percussive string techniques in an uptempo single movement that melds Copland-esque harmonies with more complicated polyrhythms. Next, Tish Jones, a poet and the founder and executive director of TruArtSpeaks, performed one of her works, a poem in several parts about the neighborhood. Her words created incredibly vivid, precise pictures, calling to mind a childhood spent creating art in North Minneapolis.
Yolande Bruce, a Northside jazz singer, took the solo on “For Every Mountain,” a gospel piece with the choir, and then Nothando Zulu, president of the Black Storytellers Alliance, told a delightful story about a Baby Gang. The SPCO’s woodwind quintet (Julia Bogorad-Kogan on flute, Barbara Bishop on oboe, Alexander Fiterstein on clarinet, Michael Petruconis on horn, and Carole Mason Smith on bassoon) played a movement from William Grant Still’s Miniatures. One of America’s first black composers to break through the color barrier in classical music, he adapted “I Ride an Old Paint” among other traditional songs in this work.
Zulu took the stage again to tell two more stories, and then the quintet returned with Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja, The First Day of Kwanzaa.” A joyful piece, it inspired the desire to hear more of the composer’s work, but next Desdamona performed her spoken-word piece “True North,” the inspiration for Timothy C. Takach’s work for choir and chamber orchestra of the same name. Commissioned specifically for this event, the work began with a lovely cello solo and ended with a choral climax and orchestral resolution. The composer is also a longtime Northside resident and a graduate of St. Olaf.
Dakota Jewell, a student at PYC Arts and Technology High school, read a hopeful poem titled “My Resilience,” written by one of his classmates, Tamia Lee, and then all the musicians took the stage and performed John Legend’s “Glory” from the movie Selma, with Yolande Bruce singing the solo and Sherri Orr and Joshua Gillespie performing Common’s rap. It’s an emotional piece regardless of context, but coming at the end of such a celebratory concert and in the current political climate, the audience was on its feet afterward. The performers ended the concert with Sanford Moore’s adaptation of “The Best Is Yet to Come” by Donald Lawrence, including audience participation, and afterward there was a reception in the lobby for everyone to enjoy the community a little while longer.
At 85 minutes, the concert felt a little short. The encores could have gone on longer, certainly. Nothando Zulu likely could have told many hours more, but the limits of the concert took precedence. “They not like us,” she said, indicating the stage managers, to the chuckle of the audience, and then, mimicking what she would say were she in charge: “You just carry on, honey!”
Indeed, while a significant percent of the audience was local, based on their responses to Zulu’s references to North Minneapolis institutions, at least half the audience was “not like us,” by which she meant white. Certainly there are white North Minneapolis residents—composer Timothy Takach is one. In no way did she mean to be exclusionary; quite the contrary. Every moment of the concert made it clear that everyone was welcome to come and celebrate North Minneapolis and the art and beauty that lives there. Overall, the celebration was a blend of black and white cultures, even if the audience skewed a little on the older, whiter side. But they (we) gamely chanted and sang along when indicated and tried not to clap on one and three. Those who are local to the neighborhood, though, will get something extra out of the show. Sitting a row behind me was a family who understood all of the references and clapped and called out for their favorites; in the audience near the front was a man who had apparently owned one of the aforementioned local institutions.
All told, it was an incredibly satisfying, joyous musical performance, and anyone who is available—especially Northside residents—should try for one of the few seats that may open up for tonight’s performance. The second and last Northside Celebration concert will be at 4:00 p.m. on March 19 at North Community High School Auditorium, 1500 James Avenue North, Minneapolis. The concert is currently sold out, but they are taking a waiting list at the door.