Harlem & Hughes on My Mind
It was thrilling to be the first singer offered an artist residency at The Met. On my first research visit, my mind reeled as I walked through gallery after gallery, considering the almost endless program possibilities.
I asked Limor Tomer, General Manager of MetLiveArts, what she hoped to accomplish with a performance residency in a space dedicated to visual art and she said, “I’m aiming to remove the threshold of entry to the museum.” Hearing that, I began researching what thresholds had encouraged or discouraged people (intentionally or not) to visit such an encyclopedic visual representation of world culture that was presumably open to us all. I came across an exhibition entitled Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968. In the words of The Met’s then-director Thomas P. F. Hoving:
“Harlem on My Mind” is this Museum’s attempt to plumb the secret of Harlem, of its unique achievements and contributions to American life, its energy, genius, and spirit. I don’t know of any institution better qualified, by reason of its basic humanist orientation, its acute and intelligent sensitivity for a disparate range of cultural expressions, better qualified than this one to attempt such an exhibition.
Our hope for the exhibition is that it communicate a sense of place and a way of living. That it engender an appreciation of the tragedies and triumphs of Black Harlem. That it make us realize that we must begin to look to the great Negro past for our understanding of the American experience, and look to it as well for whatever common hope we have for the future.
While Hoving’s words speak to the Museum’s positive intentions for the exhibition, it was a controversial show that was met with severe criticism in cultural and social arenas. The most heated and prolonged reactions manifested in protests enacted by members of the Black community, which lasted from before the opening through to the closing of the exhibition.
I was also fascinated that the title of the exhibition, Harlem On My Mind, was taken from a song that composer Irving Berlin wrote for the vaudeville and Broadway singer, actor, and dancer Ethel Waters (whose recording of it was released in 1933) as a parody of her cross-Atlantic competitor, American-born French entertainer and activist Joséphine Baker.
In my efforts to explore the history of The Met, the intentions of The Met, and also to honor what was realized in actuality, I decided to program an afternoon of music and poetry that highlights what I love about Harlem’s rich history. The program begins with a celebration of Harlem during its Renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance was something extraordinary. With Black Americans coming to New York in order to escape the torments of Jim Crow, an influx of creative spirits congregated. The vast amount of cultural influence that emanated from 125th Street and the surrounding blocks had yet to be experienced in America. Today we still feel how the cultural pulse of the Harlem Renaissance inspired and developed all artistic expressions.
The notated material in music and literature of that time are what inspire me the most. Until that point, so few Black voices had recorded and documented their own experiences; documentation was more often done through the lens of a white person’s perception. Countless Harlem-based artists have been celebrated across the globe since the 1920-30s period—why have I decided to focus on Langston Hughes?
From the start of Hughes’s career through to our time, composers in all disciplines of music have been widely drawn to set his words. Known as the “Poet Laureate of Harlem,” Langston Hughes also wanted to be a songwriter. Whether working on poetry, prose, or a libretto for an opera with Kurt Weill, his lyrical voice seemed to guide his writing. From an early age, he knew he wanted to write, and he seemed to view his art in the context of social consciousness, taking on the responsibility of sharing the Harlem Renaissance experience—the Black American experience with the rest of the world.
I was surprised to find that a majority of the settings of Hughes’s poetry composed for the classically-trained voice to which I was most drawn were written by living white men. The fact that many were white men is explicable in itself, since traditionally most composers given the chance to study classical composition techniques are from that particular demographic. But the fact that these composers were all living is what’s more significant. Hughes, “the people’s poet,” sought to re-educate both audience and artist, so presumably if a person were sensitive enough, they could find a way to tap into Hughes’ writing and illuminate it through music.
Although much of Hughes’ work was culturally focused, many of the readings and musical settings on this program have to do with the celebrations, perceptions, losses, struggles, and wonder of the human experience, and in particular, the unique New York experience.
In this moment, as I reside at The Met, Harlem and Hughes are definitely on my mind.
To make words sing
Is a wonderful thing–
Because in a song
Words last so long.
My seeking has been to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America
and obliquely that of all human kind.
I guess I’m what I feel and see and hear . . . Hear me.
LANGSTON HUGHES (1902 – 1967)
Langston Hughes’s poems such as “Harlem,” “Genius Child,” and “Song for a Dark Girl” are set to music in this recital curated and performed by Julia Bullock, who is joined by soprano Nicole Cabell (“sheer sumptuous gorgeousness,” The Mercury News), rising bass-baritone Davóne Tines, New York Philharmonic Principal Clarinetist Anthony McGill (“trademark brilliance, penetrating sound and rich character,” The New York Times), composer and violinist Jessie Montgomery, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, as well as pianist/composers Ricky Ian Gordon and John Musto, and music by composer Chad Cannon.
Julia Bullock (soprano)
Nicole Cabell (soprano)
Davóne Tines (bass-baritone)
Anthony McGill (clarinetist)
Jessie Montgomery (composer/violinist)
Ricky Ian Gordan, John Musto (composer/pianists)
John Arida (pianist)
The Young People’s Chorus of New York City
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART (New York, NY)
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium (New York, NY)
EXPLORING LANGSTON HUGHES IN SONG, LOCALLY
Zachary Woofle, The New York Times
On Sunday, the histories and cultures under Ms. Bullock’s examination weren’t only artistic, racial, national, global; they were suddenly local. The afternoon was an immersion in Hughes’s complicated passion for New York, a peerlessly diverse city that has simmered and sometimes exploded with racial and ethnic tensions since its beginning. And the mood was tellingly varied… Presiding with warm serenity over her small onstage family — she is a delightfully acute, watchful listener — Ms. Bullock brought together spoken texts, instrumental selections and songs, delivered by her and others. Her dusky voice, which rises with strength and focus, like a cloud condensing into a thunderbolt, breathed both humanity and epic grace into the music.
JULIA BULLOCK BRINGS REFLECTION, ACTION OF LANGSTON HUGHES TO MUSIC
In a blend of reflection and action, Julia Bullock and Co. created a masterpiece of words and voices for “A Dream Deferred: Langston Hughes In Song” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. This performance was a beautiful artistic expression of how art impacts the world. It is a reflection of not only what has tragically happened through racism, slavery, and other horrors, but how we desire to see the world improve.
The performances by all the artists that day painted the dark world of America’s past, but provided hope for a bright future… The singing was captivating. Nicole Cabell sang with such grace and Davóne Tines has such a lush, deep voice. The Young People’s Chorus of New York City, an all-girls choir, was an excellent addition to the day, as the group sang superb and is an excellent display of top music education in the city. The addition of Anthony McGill brought the most applause, which is no surprise as he’s been a fixture on the classical scene for quite some time and never disappoints. Finally, Julia Bullock sings with such pathos you can very easily see she’s not singing to entertain, but singing to move people to action.