Concert to showcase Black classical musicians in Rochester

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Kearstin Piper Brown

A free concert will inaugurate the 50th anniversary season of classical public radio station WXXI and shine the spotlight on several outstanding Black musicians living in Rochester.

The March 3 concert at Asbury First United Methodist Church features soprano Kearstin Piper Brown, well known to local audiences for performances in opera and with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. But it’s also a showcase for four talented students sponsored by the Black Students’ Union at the Eastman School of Music. This student-led organization, founded in 2018, strives to foster an environment where students of African descent feel empowered, informed and valued at the school and in the community.

Mezzo-soprano Nyla Thomas, a master’s student in voice from Mississippi, will sing a duet from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” with Brown, and Miles Woods, a freshman horn student from Nashville, will perform a nocturne by Russian composer Reinhold Glière. Doctoral student Daniel Mach-Holt, already an award-winning composer, will perform as a trombonist; and violist Jafrè Chase will perform pieces by J.S. Bach and Adolphus Hailstork, a contemporary African American composer who lived for a time in Rochester. (Pianist Kevin Nitsch will accompany all the Eastman musicians.)

In addition to Mozart’s popular “Exultate, Jubilate,” Brown will sing new music by contemporary African American composer B.E. Boykin, whose work she has championed. (This summer, Finger Lakes Opera will present the first production of Boykin’s “Two Corners.”) Boykin’s cycle “Moments in Sonder” is a setting of several haiku-like (Brown’s description) poems by Maya Angelou.

Brown’s busy career will include her Metropolitan Opera debut next month, in Terrance Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” She is also an active community member, as a mentor for Eastman’s William Warfield Scholarship Fund, given annually to a talented Black scholar-musician at the school in honor of the great African American baritone (an Eastman alumnus), and as board chair of the Gateways Music Festival, a celebration of Black classical musicians held each year at Eastman, and in New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

Brown recalls that WXXI’s Classical Program director Ruth Phinney had the original idea of a solo vocal recital, and then had the inspiration of including Eastman students in the performance. The singer reacted positively and enthusiastically.

“I knew many of the BSUE students from my work with the Warfield Scholarship,” she says. “They’ve also been instrumental in contributing to the Gateways Festival. I’ve accompanied several of them to the festival in New York City. And I still meet up with BSUE graduates in different cities, for coaching or conversations over lunch.”

It is an appropriate collaboration: the BSUE has presented a Black History Month Concert each February at Eastman for several years, highlighting not only young Black musicians at Eastman, but also composers of color, whose music has been on the fringes of the performing repertoire, if it was known at all. (This year, a second Black History Month recital was held at Pittsford Community Library.)

In addition to speakers, musical performances, and networking opportunities, the BSUE sponsors a monthly series, “Black Table Talk,” interviewing school administrators and faculty musicians, but open to anybody in the community. A recent “Career Chat” featured Brown.

The group also sponsors social events like an end-of-the-year party to celebrate its upcoming graduates.

“It’s great to give a recital at Eastman and have faculty members praise your performance,” says Kayla Sconiers, BSUE vice president and a senior voice performance major. “But it’s also great to know you made your colleagues proud.”

The BSUE helps Black students from day one of their Eastman careers, assisting them in “navigating their unique experiences in the world of classical music,” as a BSUE statement notes. And it helps them navigating other unique experiences as well, as Miles Woods attests. “I was here in August, during freshman orientation, and I needed to get my hair done here. Kayla, who’s also an RA, directed me where I needed to go.”

The BSUE also works in close collaboration with Eastman’s George Walker Center for Equity and Inclusion, established at the school in 2021 and named after the Pulitzer Prize-winning African American composer and Eastman alumnus.

This new office is devoted to “leadership, and making changes in the school,” says BSUE president Dykeem Cervantes, a senior majoring in saxophone performance. “So, that was an automatic relationship for us.”

The group has had a strong revival in the past few years, and is playing an increasingly important part at Eastman. The BSUE’s goals include promoting Black cultural awareness in all areas, along with fostering diversity and equity on the Eastman campus. But its members want its reach to extend beyond Main and Gibbs streets.

Receiving invitations from other Rochester organizations, like the Pittsford library and WXXI, is an important step in the BSUE’s development, according to Cervantes.

“Our reputation is important to us, so it is important when people come to us to ask us to perform,” he says. “We want to be seen as a community-based organization.”

The WXXI 50th Anniversary Concert will take place March 3 at 3 p.m. at Asbury First United Methodist Church, 1050 East Avenue, with an opportunity to meet and greet the musicians after the concert.

David Raymond is a Rochester-area freelance writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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