February 22, 2021
Celebrating Black Artists
In honor of Black History Month, at the Minnesota Orchestra we are checking in with some of the Black artists who have performed with the Orchestra in recent seasons. Join us as we revisit their memorable performances, catch up with them now, and hear their reflections on the Black performers and mentors who have powerfully impacted their careers.
Roderick Cox, conductor
“I was lucky to meet conductor James DePriest in college when he invited me to his home in NYC. He inspired me to pursue a career in orchestral conducting with 100% determination and to prepare myself for the adversity that would follow. Jessye Norman inspired me to look past race and focus on my work and the art, and by doing this, it would take me anywhere. Watching her as a fellow Georgia native, and child of the Jim Crow south sing on the world's best stages and work with such esteemed conductors taught me that no barrier should stand in-between my work and the ability to achieve. Larry Brownlee is an artist and friend who inspires me today. We will soon work together again at the San Francisco Opera. He showed me how to be a global citizen and motivated me to step outside of my comfort zone to embrace new languages and culture around the world.”
Roderick Cox was the Minnesota Orchestra’s assistant conductor from 2015 to 2016 and associate conductor from 2016 to 2018. To follow what he is up to now, you can visit his website, Instagram, or Facebook. There you will find his performance schedule, behind-the-scenes videos and images, and some of his important work around advocacy for music education and access through the arts.
Roderick established the Roderick Cox Music Initiative in 2019, with support from Yvonne Cheek, Maurice Holloman and Anton Vincent. Since then, the initiative has awarded over $35,000 to 17 young musicians in the Twin Cities through partnerships with Walker West Music Academy and MacPhail Center for Music
When recalling his performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, shown in the video here, Roderick says: “I remember being incredibly nervous for this performance. It was my first big performance and it just so happened to be with the Minnesota Orchestra. The orchestra showed me what was possible through performance, and I will never forget the high bar they set. I try to live up to this standard every time I step on the podium.”
Nygel Witherspoon, cello
“One of the most influential Black musicians I know - and my first teacher from back when I played violin - is David France. He runs the Roxbury Youth Orchestra in Boston, which provides opportunities for kids of color to learn and play instruments when they can't afford to on their own. I was able to play with the orchestra awhile back and had a great experience!”
Cellist Nygel Witherspoon is currently a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was featured as a soloist in Dvořák’s Cello Concerto during the Orchestra’s Send Me Hope concert in 2017. He returned as a guest soloist in Young People’s Concerts and the Orchestra’s Sensory-Friendly Family Concert in 2018. In the video above, Nygel performs at the Orchestra’s 2017 Annual Meeting with Principal Cello Anthony Ross.
“Prior to playing with the Minnesota Orchestra, I never had thought I would pursue a solo career, but it was a truly special thing to be able to play with such a large ensemble behind me, and to become sort of immersed in the sound. I also very much enjoyed being able to play for all the school students in the young people's concerts; I believe music is such an important part of education, and it was special to be able to provide that for so many kids.”
Goitsemang Lehobye, soprano
“As a Black singer, I am inspired a lot by people that look like me. Leontyne Price and Shirley Verrett are the first ones I think of because my voice type is close to theirs, but also I am a huge fan of Jessye Norman. Such incredibly talented women! Pretty Yende and Pumeza Matshikiza are both sopranos from my home that are internationally recognised and they inspire me because they come right out of South Africa, they worked hard in this challenging career and made names for themselves. This says to me: African child, you can do this.
Sibusiso Njeza is an amazing up-and-coming South African choral and opera composer whose operas I have performed and loved. And Bongani Ndodana-Breen is one of my favorite South African Black composers. I always love how complex his music is, how his music is so Western but the African, textures, colors and instruments are always incorporated and I obviously love the fact that he knows exactly how to write for my voice."
Goitsemang just completed her Specialist Degree in Voice Performance at the University of Michigan in December 2020. She recently performed a recital of excerpts from Verdi’s Aida. Stay tuned for more on her Facebook page.
The video above shares Goitsemang’s most recent performance with the Minnesota Orchestra, from July 2019, featuring Osvaldo Golijov’s Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra.
“Working with the Minnesota Orchestra on Beethoven’s Ninth and Harmonia Ubuntu in 2018 remain my fondest memories of making music in my whole career. If I could turn back the hands of time, I would take it right back to that amazing year.”
Kai Rocke, bassoon
Kai Rocke is currently in his second year as a Rosemary and David Good Fellow with the Minnesota Orchestra. Kai was recently featured in a woodwind quintet performance of Louis Ballard’s Ritmo Indio as part of a live broadcast performance on November 6, 2020. In this clip, the group performs part of the first movement, titled The Source.
“One of my most memorable performance moments with the Minnesota Orchestra was getting to play Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s Symphonic Variations on an African Air. The experience was a lot for me to take in. I had never heard of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor before and I enjoyed working on the music even though we had a short amount of rehearsal time. It was also part of a special program that featured narration written and performed by Aaron Dworkin. I really appreciate having that experience as it was a real catalyst for growth. I’ve since learned of so many other Black artists that have contributed to the orchestral traditions and I hope to see American orchestras have a broader, more robust dialogue about its racial history and then connect that to the future.”
Kai has performed as second bassoon with the New Bedford Symphony and has also played with various orchestras such as the Atlantic Symphony, Haffner Sinfonietta, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Shreveport Symphony. He is currently working on a few recordings and summer projects with Lakes Area Music Festival and several newly-formed ensembles.
“The Imani Winds have been an inspiration to me since I started my conservatory training. They just released a new album this month called Bruits. Garrett McQueen has a podcast Trilloquy that I really have admired over the last year. Exploring “so called Classical Music” from a Black-centered perspective. And Clifton Joey Guidry III is a good friend as well as a bassoonist/composer/artist who has been opening my eyes to other avenues outside of orchestral performance. They also dropped their first album Darkness is A Myth last August. It explores Joey’s artistic journey through the sounds of bassoon and electronics in a refreshing and sometimes challenging way.”
H. Adam Harris
“There are many Black artists that I've admired over my career. But this Black History Month I'm really inspired by Black Table Arts, a Minneapolis-based arts cooperative. They are centering Black art as a tool to build community and to change lives. They just opened a new building and I can't wait to see what futures they shape!”
Actor and director H. Adam Harris is currently directing a virtual production of Too Heavy for Your Pocket by Jiréh Breon Holder at Normandale Community College. It is a stunning play about Black folks in Nashville, TN, set in 1961, navigating the intersection of family and the fight for civil rights. In March he’ll direct a virtual staged reading of Diesel Heart by Brian Grandison, a play that tells the life story of St. Paul icon Melvin Carter Jr. As an actor, he will be revisiting one of his favorite characters in an audio drama called Interlude by Harrison David Rivers. This play is a time capsule of one man's emotional and mental journey over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic.
H. Adam has performed numerous times with the Minnesota Orchestra and is particularly recognized for his appearances as a narrator and actor in Young People’s Concerts in recent years.
“Whether a family concert or Orchestra gala I love seeing the delight on folks’ faces from the stage. I especially appreciate the family concerts for the chorus of "ooos" and "aaahs" from young people.”
Appetite for Change
“The whole orchestra, the building, the people, the performers, the musicians, the rappers - everybody was one musical living organism.” Princess Haley, co-founder and Senior Engagement Officer of Appetite for Change
In July 2019, youth artists from Appetite for Change performed their song, Grow Food, with the Minnesota Orchestra in a concert celebrating the intersection of food and music in the Twin Cities. Through Grow Food, urban youth wanted to share the importance of actively choosing healthy foods with their peers in a fun, accessible music format.
Since then, the group has created a second video, Trap or Grow, and their work inspired another youth group in Rochester, Minnesota, to create a video about what they are doing in their own community. Princess Haley explained that through this experience, the youth in Minneapolis learned that food insecurities are not just an urban issue and growing food is important to communities everywhere.
“Recently, Appetite for Change had begun a program called Community Cooks, intended as a tool to organize residents of North Minneapolis to cook and eat together, while talking about changes we want to see in our community. When COVID hit, we couldn’t come together, and we found that people were going back to comfort food and not cooking with fresh ingredients at home. So, we started a Community Cooks Mealbox Program. Now, people are back in the kitchen cooking with their families.”
Mealbox recipients get two recipe cards in each box, plus the ingredients to make the meals and to build a healthy pantry, and boxes are delivered safely with social distancing in place.
The Appetite for Change youth group has also been doing healing circles and intentionality classes throughout the pandemic. They have been meeting virtually, and volunteers have curated boxes of art supplies to promote creativity and healing through creativity. You can see some the art they have created on Appetite for Change’s Instagram page.
29:11, vocal ensemble
Despite the pandemic, musicians of vocal ensemble 29:11 have recently completed several successful projects, including a virtual performance of the South African National Anthem as well as virtual collaborations with the Minnesota Chorale and Concordia University in Saint Paul. Because the 29:11 musicians in Cape Town are not able to travel to the United States, director Brendon Adams traveled to South Africa in January. The group is now together in a “Singing Bubble” farmhouse outside of Cape Town, where they can sing, record, and quarantine together safely. They are working on both live and pre-recorded performances for Black History Month, which will feature traditional music from America and South Africa, with a 29:11 twist. The groups’ current projects can be experienced on their Facebook page.
Of their performances with the Minnesota Orchestra in 2018, both at Orchestra Hall and on tour in South Africa, Brendon Adams recalls: “Learning and performing Beethoven’s Ninth was truly a stretch outside our comfort zone for all of us, but that is a part of reconciliation! Standing on that podium, receiving a hug from Osmo afterward, and then having the Orchestra in my country, and teaching the Orchestra members the text to Shosholoza, these were lifelong memories I will cherish. Our community children are still speaking about that day!”