One City, One Symphony: Speak Truth


More often than not, the greatest composers are influenced by the people, places and cultures they engage with in their lives, as well as the ideas and emotions that they provoke. In many cases, these are expressed as a sort of musical portrait, with relatively explicit connotations. However, in some cases, the composer is wrought with uncertainty, doubt, fear or grief that emerges in the music itself. This is often the case when the composer is somehow silenced—politically, culturally or personally—and the truth to which their music strives to speak is shrouded.


This season’s One City, One Symphony concert program and community engagement activity aims to explore what it means for music to speak truth that might otherwise go unsaid. Since its inception, One City, One Symphony has taken a particular work—most often something already quite familiar to many people—and used it to facilitate community dialogue on a common theme. For instance, in 2014 Mahler’s First Symphony proposed the idea of “hero,” while last season’s all-American program provoked discussions about what “home” means. This November, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 paired with Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 and a new world premiere by Emily Cooley offers an opportunity to look at what it means to “speak truth” to power.

Dmitri Shostakovich has been the subject of much speculation and controversy over the years, primarily regarding his relationship with the Soviet regime. While it’s widely accepted that Shostakovich ultimately rejected this regime, his music at times seemed to reflect what the government demanded of its artists, while at other times put him in real danger of exile or execution. His First Cello Concerto is one of many of the composer’s works that seem to dance the line between propaganda and free artistic expression.

While Tchaikovsky did not compose under the same political pressures as Shostakovich, his personal life was fraught with uncertainty and doubt, with many aspects of his identity—most notably his sexuality--oppressed by cultural norms. His Sixth Symphony—arguably the most emotional work composed by the most emotional composer—expresses an inner turmoil as oppressive as the societal pressures.

Thus with these two works, this year’s One City, One Symphony theme started to come into focus, prompting questions like, “What does it mean to speak truth to power?” “Where in our society today are certain truths hidden or oppressed, either by the law or by social norms?” “What is an artist’s role in speaking truth?”

As a modern incorporation of the theme, the CSO tapped Philadelphia-based composer Emily Cooley to write a new work that explores what it means to “speak truth” in music. “This is a huge and motivating question for me as a composer, but I don't know if I have an answer at this point. I always try to follow whatever musical threads feel the most urgent and genuine to me at any given time,” she said.

The new work, entitled Abound, in particular strives to push back against perceived limits. “I think of power and oppression as limiting forces, and 

abundance can exist as a counter to that. I think of abundance as a sense of uncontrollable growth, a thriving that can’t be tamed. I tried to bring that idea into my piece in the form of rich harmonies, resonant sounds, and elongated phrases—particularly towards the end of the piece. I wanted there to be moments of excess sound, excess emotion.”

In addition to the concert program, fostering community dialogue continues to be a primary goal of One City, One Symphony. This year, a presentation of local artists of all genres will offer the opportunity for audiences to engage with friends and neighbors in a shared expression and understanding of “speak truth.”

On November 9, there will be two performances (7pm and 8:30pm) of “Speak Truth Through Art” at Artsville, located in Madisonville. The event is a multi-sensory showcase of local artists and activists, visual and performing, who are known for using art as a vehicle for speaking truth to power. Cincy Stories (an organization dedicated to building community through interactive storytelling experiences)will be joined by CSO musicians Joanne Wojtowicz and Tim Berens, as well as local story teller Omope Carter-Daboiku, visual art by Annie Ruth, SOS Art, and Mary Clare Rietz, performances by PONES, Napoleon Maddox, Baoku Moses, all sparking dialogue on the theme. Liz Wu, a CSO Teaching Artist, curated the event.

 “In many cases, art transcends boundaries of age, geography, spoken language, and even time—we can appreciate the paintings of cave men and Egyptian hieroglyphs even thousands of years later,” said Ms. Wu. Because of this, if one desires to ‘speak truth,’ art is a powerful medium—it can cut to the core of an issue in a way that is immediate and personal.”

The November 9 event will allow these local artists, who each specialize in a different mode of artistic expression, to distill meaning from their life experiences and translate them, “into a format that another person can relate to, interpret, and then respond to.”

Ms. Wu’s vision is that each participant will be taken on an inner journey through a variety of themes–affordable housing, immigration issues, the fragility and strength of beauty, food waste/access and others—that will hopefully broaden their viewpoints and help cultivate some unlikely friendships. “Through art, we can connect directly with others who are very different from us, or have experienced something we never have, or perhaps are not even alive to speak with us in person. We can walk in someone else's shoes, imagine some of their emotions, gain a different perspective, and cultivate insight. The artist is like a guidepost—not giving answers, but pointing in a certain direction.”

One City, One Symphony: Speak Truth Through Art

Thursday, November 9
7 pm / 8:30 pm
Tickets: $5
Artsville, 5021 Whetsel Ave., Madisonville


One City, One Symphony Concert Performances

Friday, November 24
Saturday, November 25
8 pm
Music Hall