In all the months of planning, research and rehearsal that James K. Bass has spent working toward Long Beach Camerata Singers’ first fully fledged comeback show since the pandemic, it was only just yesterday morning, while working on a script for “Peace Project 5: Reconciliation,” that a startling realization dawned on the artistic director.
“I’m a 48-year-old White man that’s been working as a professional conductor for over 20 years and I’ve never conducted an all-Black American program,” he said of the thought by phone. “It seems like it shouldn’t have been that way, but here we are. And I’m so glad we’re doing it now.”
“Peace Project 5: Reconciliation,” set to debut Sunday, Nov. 14 at the Jordan High School Auditorium, is a special new concert by the Long Beach Camerata Singers, one that will tell a story of the Black experience in America through the works of Black composers, arrangers, authors and poets.
The tone of the show, Bass said, is one quite unlike anything performed by the 80-voice Camerata Singers before and will largely incorporate Black gospel repertoire.
“And they’ve been composed and placed into the kind of classical realm as far as how they look on paper, but the sensations and the actual music itself will feel a bit like you’re in a church and you’re just in this kind of spontaneous real-time,” he said. “It’s a celebration of that style.”
Adding to the significance of the concert is a newly commissioned piece by Grammy-award-winning composer Richard Danielpour, who will be in attendance. The work features a libretto of former Library of Congress poet laureate Rita Dove’s poem, “Testimony.”
Danielpour and Bass worked together previously on Danielpour’s project, “The Passion of Yeshua,” an album-length oratorio about Christ’s final hours that earned the pair a 2020 Grammy. After two years working together on the project and developing a friendly rapport, Danielpour proposed the idea of commissioning a piece for Camerata, and the Peace Project seemed an ideal fit.
“Richard is a composer that has dealt with subject matters in the Black community before, he’s written an opera, about a very, very tragic story of a slave mother,” Bass said.
The opera Bass is referring to is “Margaret Garner,” a story based loosely on the actual events of a runaway slave woman, Margaret Garner, who kills her children to spare them from being recaptured to slavery. The two-act opera premiered in May 2005 at the Detroit Opera House.
“This is a very tragic story. But Richard obviously spent an enormous amount of his time working on this story in the subject matter, and I knew this about him,” Bass said. “And for him to write a piece for us, was just so exciting.”
The Peace Project concert has been a part of the Camerata season since Bass devised the program in 2017 as a means to explore performance art as a vehicle of peace, sometimes tackling socially relevant topics through music as a way to connect, uplift and foster understanding. Camerata’s 2020 Peace Project was going to be about climate change but was postponed due to the pandemic.
But in the wake of the police brutality protests exploding across the country, ignited by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Bass and leaders at the Camerata Singers knew that their next Peace Project must reflect the poignant social awakening Floyd’s death catalyzed in many people across the country.
“We were all just so deeply affected by the George Floyd incident, that was a real watershed,” said Jan Hower, president of the Long Beach Camerata Singers.
“The Black Lives Matter march that happened right here, in my neighborhood, I joined it and I walked and saw the passion and I had that realization that, wait a minute, we could be doing more,” Bass said.
Camerata Singers enlisted the help of figures from the local Black community for guidance on how to approach the show, including 9th District Councilman Rex Richardson and NAACP President Naomi Rainey-Pierson.
But a key figure was Derrell Acon, an accomplished baritone singer, co-founder of the Black Opera Alliance, and current associate artistic director with the Long Beach Opera. Acting as artistic adviser with “Reconciliation,” Acon both educated and mentored Bass and those with Camerata on how to shape the program.
“Derrell really helped me with types of talking points, subject matter. Would it be something that the Black community would, we hope, want to have said, to have highlighted?” Bass said. “He really got this perspective going that, we want this to be a celebration of these composers, poets and arrangers.”
From there, Bass said he went on a journey, delving into works he, admittedly, had never really explored. From his research, Bass landed on 13 pieces that will be featured in the performance, including works by famed Black composers William Grant Still (called “the dean of African-American composers”) and Henry Thacker Burleigh.
Through some of these works, notably Burleigh’s “My Lord What A Mornin,’” Camerata will celebrate what Bass said is one of the Black communities’ contributions to choral music, the African American concert spiritual, a genre cultivated from the spiritual folksong of enslaved Black Americans.
“Usually it’s biblical stories and parables, which were so important to the early Black community in America, then elevated by composers taking those spiritual ideas and putting them into a highly constructed musical piece,” Bass explained.
Along with music, many of the songs will feature accompanying pieces from poets and writers such as James Weldon Johnson and Verna Arvey, with a particular nod to the works of Langston Hughes, a poet and activist regarded as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. His works will be featured three times in the concert.
Long Beach Camerata are especially excited to present “Reconciliation” at the newly renovated, Jordan High School Auditorium, which can sit up to 1,300 people. It was rather a happy accident, Camerata President Hower explained, that Camerata was unable to host its show in the Long Beach Arena lobby due to scheduling conflicts with Danielpour, who wanted to be present for the show.
“And then we stumbled onto this Jordan theater, which is absolutely beautiful,” she said. “It’s a great privilege to be performing there.”
“Reconciliation” will open, as all Camerata Peace Projects have, with a roundtable discussion. This will be moderated by Acon, and include four panelists, Councilman Richardson, who will also narrate the show, Rainey-Pierson and local Black activist Senay Kenfe. The fourth is still to be determined.
The discussion will center on Black issues of systemic racism, racial justice, equity and reconciliation but through the context of music as a healing force, Hower said.
“Reconciliation” is a concert that some could argue is long overdue, but by no means too late. Now, Camerata said, they see this show as the exciting tipping point of lasting change within the company.
“Camerata wants to be more involved in the community. We want to continue our mission of bringing great choral music to the ears of Long Beach, but we also have a responsibility to seek out, explore and perform those pieces of music, those composers, those ideas that have not been in the forefront as much as they could have been,” Bass said. “And so now it is part of our job to do that. Let’s bring it forward. Let’s go.”
“Peace Project 5: Reconciliation” will be performed at the Jordan High School Auditorium Sunday, Nov. 14 at 4:30 p.m. Tickets range from $40 – $65, not including service charges. Tickets may be purchased online, click here, or by calling 310-686-5833. Jordan High School is at 6500 Atlantic Ave.