The Story Behind NC Symphony’s Juneteenth Performance
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How important is exposure to the arts at a young age? Anthony Kelley is Professor of Music at @DukeU and currently @ncsymphony Composer-in-Residence. Discover his journey here and discover his latest work, “Spirituals of Liberation”.
One of Dr. Anthony Kelley’s older brothers received a toy organ for Christmas. Shelved for two years, it was obvious Kelley’s siblings weren’t interested in playing the instrument. He picked up the book that came with the toy and started trying to figure it out on his own.
He didn’t quite understand how to make music at the time, but his determination was something his parents noticed. Maybe it might be worth exploring, they thought.
Kelley grew up in Henderson, North Carolina with two elementary school teachers as parents. His first piano teacher was Mrs. White, who lived in the neighborhood and played at a local church.
His parents encouraged his talent, but were not yet going to buy a piano for their young son. Kelley needed a place to practice outside of her piano lessons.
In sixth grade, Kelley contacted the elementary school caretaker behind her house where her mother taught to see if they could work out a solution. While the school janitor completed his after-school cleaning routine, Kelley used that time to practice the piano.
This went on for a year and a half, until her parents saw that music was not going to be a passing extracurricular activity and bought a piano for the house.
These are the beginnings of a musical life for Anthony Kelley. In what he describes as “a full-loop moment in the most rewarding way imaginable,” Kelley is now the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence. On June 18, in commemoration of Juneteenth, his new original composition titled “Spirituals of Liberation” will be performed at NC Symphony’s Summerfest: Juneteenth Freedom Celebration.
Influential Musical Moments
Growing up, Kelley’s musical curiosity was not limited to the piano. At Henderson Junior High School, he learned tuba and trombone.
His band director took the class to see the high school band perform an arrangement of one of the movements from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.
Kelley had a good friend who played in the band with him in college. They constantly challenged each other, playing a game to see which of the two could find the most obscure classical music in the library. This friend’s aunt saw their interest and approached Kelley’s parents to offer to take them to Raleigh for an NC Symphony performance. The guest solo artist for this show was jazz pianist Billy Taylor.
It was Kelley’s first experience with an orchestra, and the fact that Taylor spoke a dialogue there with both black jazz language and classical language forever influenced Kelley.
“I never separate them. Everything I’ve ever written contains these dialogues. This moment contributes to my style,” Kelley said. He still has the ticket for this performance.
In grade 10, he left Henderson to attend Choate Rosemary Hall, a private boarding school. His music theory teacher, Ralph Valentine, redirected him to composition at school. This course helped him understand how to develop harmony and gave context to the history and culture of songwriting.
After boarding school, he returned to North Carolina to attend Duke University. It was in his second year when he toured Europe with the Symphony of the Winds that his conductor made sure they visited the monuments of great composers. He saw where Mozart lived and where other great composers wrote their first symphonies. These trips kept the idea of writing music at the forefront of his mind.
He became a composition student of Robert Ward for the remainder of his undergraduate degree. After pursuing his master’s degree, he heard the work of Olly Wilson, a black composer based at the University of California, Berkeley. Kelley was so overwhelmed by the “Sometimes” play that he wrote a letter to Wilson the following week saying, “whatever you do, that’s what I want to do more of.”
Kelley received a full ride to the University of California, Berkeley to earn his doctorate and studied with Wilson. Kelley said Wilson is a specialist in understanding how West African music connects to African American music. All of these experiences and more have brought him back to Duke, where he has worked since 2000.
“The Spirituals of Liberation”
For Kelley, spirituals were created by the need to express oneself. They are originally a way for slaves to connect to the afterlife, whatever the afterlife meant to them. It was a way of expressing hopes, fears and aspirations. “I create new spirituals, based on what I know to be the characteristics of old spirituals,” Kelley said.
The composition is divided into three movements. It “covers the journey from the oppression of slavery to the ecstasy and triumph of liberation and emancipation,” Kelley says. He wanted it to encompass the total human experience of slaves, not just slavery.
The first movement is called “Work Song (for a Post-Terrestrial Railroad),” and Kelley describes it as a little tip of the hat to the work of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. In the piece, audiences will hear sounds that mimic that of building a railroad, intertwined with complex melodies that represent the psychological work of being enslaved.
“Elegy (for the New Blues People)” is the second movement, and for this piece Kelley drew inspiration from the book “Blues People” by Imamu Amiri Baraka, which takes into consideration the experiences of second-generation slaves and at -of the ; those who were born in America and do not consider Africa their home. These “blues people” are those who have begun to create music that is not purely of African origin, but a hybrid of their influences.
The third and final movement of Kelley’s composition is titled “Never Forget.” He describes it as the accomplishment of true liberation, and he refers to the other movements in the work.
After Summerfest on June 18, the NC Symphony will continue to perform the piece in a concert series traveling to Chapel Hill, New Bern and Tarboro. For more information on free concerts, click here. This article will be updated with Kelley’s article after Juneteenth.