Mission: To seek and share inspiration

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Finding a Voice: The Growing Impact of Classical Roots


By Meghan Berneking

As the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra strives to further its mission to seek and share inspiration from concert to concert and season to season, the musicians, staff and Board of Directors continually look outward for insights and enthusiasm. The collaborative nature of the CSO’s annual Classical Roots program epitomizes this outward appeal perhaps more than any other single concert. Classical Roots recognizes and celebrates African-American music traditions and contributions to the orchestral world and is one way the Orchestra attempts to bridge cultural divides in the community. By exalting and celebrating cultural differences, Classical Roots fosters dialogue between friends and neighbors and confronts difficult and often uncomfortable topics, challenging long-held status quos particularly in music.

This program that began in small area churches has grown into an annual at-capacity performance at Music Hall, but the community grass-roots nature of the event remains. In particular, the robust Clergy Advisory Committee assists in brainstorming and planning thematic and artistic elements of the program, advocating for the concert in the community and serving as the foundation on which the program can be built each year.

Another essential element of Classical Roots is the Community Mass Choir. Composed of well over 100 singers representing dozens of area churches, the Choir embodies what Classical Roots is all about—uniting friends, churches, neighbors, colleagues and family members and transcending perceived divisions by entering into a shared musical experience. The Choir spends months preparing and rehearsing with dedicated music ministers, which is testament to the singers’ commitment to the mission of Classical Roots.

“I was always told to be careful what you wish for,” said Classical Roots Resident Conductor William Caldwell. “Four years ago when I heard my first Classical Roots and CSO performance that featured Roderick Dixon, I said, ‘I must be a part of this event.’ The next year, I was invited to assist in preparing the Classical Roots Choir along with other dynamic music leaders from within the African-American community, and it has been a wonderful experience. The passion and dedication these singers have is infectious, and I’m overjoyed to be a part of it.”

“Classical Roots has become an integral part of the fabric of this community,” said Music Minister Geneva Woode. “While we have many dedicated singers in the choir who volunteer year after year, we continue to attract new members who are affected by the historical message that is portrayed through songs of the past and present. Performing at Music Hall with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and incredibly gifted guest artists gives the singers a firsthand experience in preparation for such an emotionally powerful concert. It is a dream come true for all.”

While local connections and community building are primary outcomes of Classical Roots, the concert has also put Cincinnati on the national map in recent years, attracting high-profile guest stars including Grammy-winning vocal group Take 6, gospel singer Pastor Marvin Winans and acclaimed conductor and composer Charles Floyd. This year the star power grows even more when acclaimed hip-hop recording artist, actor, film producer and poet Common joins the CSO on stage for the program. With a slew of awards to his name, including three Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award and multiple BET Awards, Common’s career has spanned three decades. He will perform “Glory” from the movie Selma, for which he won an Oscar in 2015 and a Grammy in 2016. He’ll also narrate a work the CSO commissioned for last November’s One City, One Symphony program, which explored the theme of freedom: Jonathan Bailey Holland’s Equality incorporates the poetry of Dr. Maya Angelou. Joining Common will be the powerhouse vocalist Capathia Jenkins, who most recently electrified crowds during the Cincinnati Pops’ “I’m Every Woman” concert in January. The Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra Nouveau Chamber Players, an ensemble of African-American high school string players, will also perform on the program as an annual Classical Roots highlight.

“The high caliber of artists who want to be involved in Classical Roots is a true testament to the great work we are doing in Cincinnati,” said Edgar Smith, CEO of World Pac Paper, LLC, the Classical Roots Presenting Sponsor. “We’re using this incredible music heritage, traditions and influence to enter into a dialogue in this community, and the result is the beginning of positive and real social change.”

This year’s Classical Roots will be dedicated to Cincinnati’s own Marian Spencer. A tireless advocate for civil rights, Ms. Spencer was the first African-American woman to be elected to City Council and serve as Vice-Mayor. Over the course of more than half a century, she has dedicated her life to fighting discrimination. The concert on April 29 will pay homage to her invaluable contributions to the Cincinnati community.

“The CSO really knows how to make an impact. Classical Roots is the best thing to happen in Cincinnati and the nation in a long time,” said Mr. Caldwell. “It’s great the CSO cares and can make a difference for so many wonderful people that love to sing and possess the desire. I am delighted to be part of the wonderful team to make it all happen for the great city of Cincinnati.”

Classical Roots
APR 29, 2016, 7:30 PM | Music Hall
Tickets still available