Mu­sic gives a voice to ‘so many bro­ken hearts’

At Mor­gan State Uni­ver­sity, a new work sings a com­mu­nity’s grief

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Tim Smith

Politi­cians, pun­dits and protesters have had much to say about the deaths of young black men in Bal­ti­more and other cities. Tonight at Mor­gan State Uni­ver­sity, mu­si­cians will ad­dress the is­sue.

“Mother’s Lament,” a work for so­prano, cho­rus and orches­tra cre­ated by two Mor­gan State fac­ulty mem­bers, gives voice to the per­spec­tive of those who have lost sons to vi­o­lence. The piece re­ceives its world pre­miere tonight in the uni­ver­sity’s Mur­phy Fine Arts Cen­ter in a pro­gram that in­cludes videos of Bal­ti­more moth­ers dis­cussing their losses.

“This is our means of car­ing for our com­mu­nity,” said Vin­cent Dion Stringer, a Soloist Mar­quita Lis­ter sings “Mother’s Lament” as Julien Beni­chou con­ducts the Mid-At­lantic Sym­phony Orches­tra. The piece will be per­formed at 8 tonight. bass-bari­tone and voice teacher at Mor­gan since 2005. He wrote the poem “Mother’s Lament” that has been set to mu­sic by col­league James Lee III. “The arts can have a cathar­tic ef­fect,” he said.

Kathryn Cooper-Ni­cholas, one of the moth­ers whose ex­pe­ri­ences Stringer drew from in writ­ing the poem, agrees.

“There is a cloud hang­ing over our city,” said Cooper-Ni­cholas, who founded the or­ga­ni­za­tion Sis­ters Sav­ing the City af­ter her son, An­dre Ni­cholas, was stabbed sev­eral times at a Bal­ti­more bus stop in 2007. Al­though he sur­vived and thrived af­ter the at­tack, he was killed seven years later.

“I feel that the mu­sic and the po­etry of­fer a heal­ing op­por­tu­nity not just for us,

but for the city,” Cooper-Ni­cholas said.

A sim­i­lar sen­ti­ment is ex­pressed by Alice Oaks. She lost both of her sons to gun vi­o­lence on Bal­ti­more streets: Irvin Bernard Law­son Jr. in 2008 and Larry Wal­ter Hen­der­son Jr. in 2014.

“I’m thank­ful that Vin­cent cared about how we felt and what we’re go­ing through that he would think enough of us to share our sto­ries and try to help us,” said Oaks, pres­i­dent of the sup­port group Sur­vivors Against Vi­o­lence Ev­ery­where.

Stringer’s text has been set to mu­sic that re­flects trade­marks of Lee’s style — strongly com­mu­nica­tive, vividly orches­trated — that have earned him in­ter­na­tional ad­mi­ra­tion. The com­poser has re­ceived com­mis­sions from the Bal­ti­more Sym­phony Orches­tra and ma­jor en­sem­bles around the coun­try.

The Michi­gan-born Lee, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Mor­gan for a decade, has been build­ing an in­ter­na­tional ca­reer as well. Last month, he trav­eled to South Amer­ica for the world pre­mieres of two con­cer­tos. An ex­pe­ri­ence on a pre­vi­ous trip to that con­ti­nent laid the ground­work for what would be­come “Mother’s Lament.”

“I hap­pened to be in Brazil as a Ful­bright scholar in 2014 and was watch­ing CNN when they started show­ing what hap­pened in Fer­gu­son with Michael Brown,” Lee, 40, said. “Later, I saw a com­ment by a Face­book friend ask­ing when an African-Amer­i­can com­poser would write a re­quiem about what was hap­pen­ing to our young men.”

Lee con­tacted Stringer to sug­gest that they col­lab­o­rate on a mu­si­cal work deal­ing with the is­sue. The com­poser rec­om­mended that his col­league start by read­ing the bib­li­cal Book of Lamen­ta­tions. Like sev­eral the chap­ters in that book, Stringer’s “Mother’s Lament” has 22 verses.

Lee has set those verses into a three­move­ment, 40-minute com­po­si­tion, which will be pre­miered by so­prano Mar­quita Lis­ter, the Mor­gan State Uni­ver­sity Choir and the Mid-At­lantic Sym­phony Orches­tra, con­ducted by Julien Beni­chou.

In the first move­ment, “Sleep­less Night,” the so­prano soloist sings of a mother’s anx­i­ety when­ever her son leaves the house. “A Black man-child isn’t safe out there in this an­gry world …”

“Mother’s Fear,” the sec­ond and long­est por­tion of the work, in­tro­duces ref­er­ences to fa­mous racially charged killings, in­clud­ing those of Brown and Trayvon Martin, as well as lower-pro­file killings. A provoca­tive word keeps re­turn­ing in the text: “cru­ci­fied.”

“Some of these deaths are more like cru­ci­fix­ions,” the Con­necti­cut-born Stringer said.

He does not fo­cus ex­clu­sively on high­pro­file in­ci­dents. The poem also men­tions D’Rod­er­ick Jef­fer­son-Cook, a young man killed in Bal­ti­more in 2013, as­sailant un­known.

“His mother, my dear friend Debbi Blackwell-Cook, talked with me about all the vic­tims we don’t hear about,” Stringer said. “She used the phrase ‘so many names un­known.’ Those words spoke to me.”

That led Stringer to weave a re­frain into “Mother’s Lament”: “So many names un­known, So many lost sons, So many bro­ken hearts, So many lights dimmed.”

For the fi­nale, ti­tled “Mother’s Prayer,” the com­poser evokes an African-Amer­i­can spir­i­tual and draws out shim­mer­ing or­ches­tral sounds as the soloist prays that her son will be kept safe. There is a prayer, too, for par­ents who’ve lost chil­dren to vi­o­lence, a plea to “heal their wounds and soothe their pain.”

That pain con­tin­ues to be felt by those like Cooper-Ni­cholas.

“When I think about … my son be­ing mur­dered, and all the mur­ders be­fore him and all the mur­ders that con­tinue,” she said, “where is the ou­trage that there isn’t enough be­ing done to ad­dress the root causes of the vi­o­lence?.”

Dorothy John­son-Speight, founder and na­tional ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Philadel­phia-based vi­o­lence pre­ven­tion ad­vo­cacy group Moth­ers in Charge, will serve as host of the “Mother’s Lament” pro­gram.

Her 24-year-old son, Khaaliq Jab­bar John­son, a so­cial worker with a de­gree from Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land East­ern Shore, was shot to death in 2001 af­ter a dis­pute over a park­ing space.

“There should be ou­trage not just when a white po­lice of­fi­cer shoots a black man, but when a young black man kills some­one who looks like him, and when ba­bies and other in­no­cents are be­ing killed in drive-by shoot­ings,” said John­son-Speight. “We need ev­ery­one to come to­gether about this, not just the moth­ers and so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tions.” Oaks shares that feel­ing. “It’s like an ill­ness,” she said, “and it needs a cure. I just keep pray­ing that one day this will all end, one day soon.”

“So many names un­known, So many lost sons.” From ‘Mother’s Lament’

In ad­di­tion to the per­for­mance of “Mother’s Lament,” a pub­lic dis­cus­sion about the toll of vi­o­lence will be held Sun­day af­ter­noon at Mor­gan State.

“There’s a feel­ing of un­re­solved jus­tice in Bal­ti­more be­cause of Fred­die Gray, but just the other week­end, we had 22 shoot­ings in Bal­ti­more, none of which were po­lice shoot­ings,” Stringer said. “We have to find a way we can all come out of this whole, or at least move to­ward whole­ness.”

This week­end’s pre­sen­ta­tion of a con­cert and a com­mu­nity di­a­logue may pro­vide a start. “How it will be re­ceived, I don’t know,” Cooper-Ni­cholas said. “Whether it will be a change agent, I don’t know. But it’s some­thing good to do.”

It’s some­thing that has al­ready af­fected Cameron Potts, a fresh­man mem­ber of the Mor­gan State Uni­ver­sity Choir.

“As a young male in Bal­ti­more, to sing this piece of mu­sic is a life-chang­ing mo­ment,” he said. “I be­lieve it’s go­ing to be a part of the change that’s com­ing to Bal­ti­more and the na­tion. Many peo­ple are go­ing to be touched by this.”


The Mor­gan State Uni­ver­sity Choir re­hearses “Mother’s Lament,” cre­ated by Mor­gan State fac­ulty mem­bers Vin­cent Dion Stringer and James Lee III. “Many peo­ple are go­ing to be touched by this,” said choir mem­ber Cameron Potts, sec­ond from right.


James Lee III, left, and Vin­cent Dion Stringer col­lab­o­rated on “Mother’s Lament.” Lee says he was mo­ti­vated to write the piece af­ter a friend asked when an African-Amer­i­can com­poser would write a re­quiem for young black vic­tims of vi­o­lence.

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