Over the rustling of pages and the audience’s bated breath, the Philadelphia Orchestra began to play a low, even chord.
Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin then indicated to Audrey Glickman, who sat above the orchestra in a balcony with the Morgan State University Choir and the Philadelphia Heritage Chorale. Glickman lifted a shofar to her mouth and blew, emitting a clear, high sound that pierced through the orchestra’s low notes — a long blast, three short blasts and another long blast.
Tekiah. Shevarim. Tekiah.
The shofar “is a call to action,” explained Glickman, a survivor of the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha shooting in Pittsburgh, who joined the orchestra for the world premiere of Healing Tones. “In fact, that’s what we’re seeking. We the people from Tree of Life are reaching out, saying, ‘We have to band together with everyone around the world and take action against what’s happening because we can’t let it go on.’ This is a physical representation of, not only calling to action, but taking action.”
Healing Tones, which premiered at three concerts at the Kimmel Center on March 28, 29 and 30, was the culmination of Hannibal Lokumbe’s three-year tenure as the orchestra’s Music Alive composer-in- residence. The piece addresses oppression and intends to heal communities from hate.
Hannibal, the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the 2009 USA Cummings Fellowship, often draws on his Native American and African American heritage for his work.
This text-driven concert was inspired by his great-grandmother, a Cherokee shaman who survived the Trail of Tears. Though she died before he was born, he has gotten to know her through stories, and she has served as his spirit guide since he was 13 years old, he said.
“She helps me to navigate the maze of humanity, all of humanity — very, very beautiful soul,” Hannibal said. “The piece is about the ridicule of a culture by people who don’t understand the culture, in this case, those who laid siege to the Native American way of life, and they laid siege to it because they did not understand the depth and the gravity of the culture.”
In the piece, a character called the Shaman, played by tenor Rodrick Dixon, serves as a healer but wants to die rather than live in a world where violence is inflicted on his people. Two godly characters — the Everlasting, played by mezzo-soprano Funmike Lagoke, and the Eternal Mother, played by soprano Karen Slack — help him find peace. The orchestra represents the Primordial Force, or the sun, while the choir represents the Ancestors, or the moon, according to the show’s program. The three soloists wore colorful costumes and face paint for the concert.
At the end of Healing Tones, when the Shaman questions how he has managed to find peace in a shattered world, the Everlasting responds, “It is because you are doing what you were given to do.”
Hannibal spent about two years working on Healing Tones. When the Tree of Life shooting happened in October, he decided to dedicate the piece to the synagogue and include a person from that congregation in the orchestra to let the synagogue know that he stands with them, he said.
The use of the shofar in an orchestra, though perhaps unfamiliar to many others, in not new to Hannibal. On a trip to Ethiopia in 1979, he saw performers play with similar instruments.
“I’m a trumpet player, and I know the sense, the feeling that I have when I make a call on my instrument,” Hannibal said. “I felt it was perfect to begin the work, after hearing about what happened in Pittsburgh, to begin the work with a call, the call of an instrument of that nature, given its historic meaning to call the people together.”
The orchestra originally reached out to Tree of Life Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers to play the shofar, but he was unable to come and suggested Glickman.
Glickman blows the shofar for Tree of Life during High Holidays and throughout the month of Elul during morning minyan. She was leading services at the synagogue when the shooter came in, and she survived by hiding among bags of clothing.
“One of the things we’ve learned is that, when people reach their hands out to you, you reach out and take their hands and hold on,” Glickman said. “We’re creating a network around the world of people reaching out and touching, and we touch back. You really never say no. Besides that, this is a brand new piece of music and a brand new idea. It’s a chance to participate in that but it’s also a chance to specifically blow the shofar and say, ‘Hey, wake up.’”
Though specifically about the oppression of Native Americans, Healing Tones’ message about healing from trauma is universal. This is made clear in the multicultural elements of the piece, such as Glickman and the shofar, as well as the music’s jazz- and gospel-inspired sounds.
At the end, the choir began clapping and singing about peace, with words such as, “Peace for the land, peace for the sea; peace for the bound, peace for the free.” Some in the audience clapped along with the choir, as on stage, Dixon raised an object, marked with symbols of different religions, above his head and turned slowly on the spot.
Then, Glickman blew the shofar once again, the sounds ringing out over the orchestra and the choir — one long blast, three short blasts and then the longest blast of them all.
Tekiah. Shevarim. Tekiah gedolah.
“The idea of music as counter to hatred is huge because people are the ones creating the hatred,” Glickman said, “but people can also create things this beautiful.”
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