(Classic Music Sundays Special Edition, Spitalfields Festival. 6 July 2023. Report by John Stevenson)
In a special edition of Classic Music Sundays for the Spitalfields Festival, MOBO award-winning jazz saxophonist, MC, broadcaster, composer and alumnus of Tomorrow’s Warriors, Soweto Kinch, discussed tracks from composers who have influenced his work with Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy.
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The composers discussed were Scott Joplin, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Frederick Delius, Gustav Holst and Edward Elgar. Also filtered through the superb hi-fi Danley Distribution speaker system was Soweto’s own ‘White Juju III March of the Unicorns’, from ‘White Juju’, his recent collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO).
The event was staged in the quaint 17th Century St Anne and St Agnes Church (VOCES8 Centre) on Gresham Street – nestled between the bold and shiny skyscrapers of the City of London.
In discussing ‘Treemonisha’, composed by pianist Scott Joplin in 1910 – pejoratively described as a ‘ragtime opera’ – Soweto mentioned that it was important to draw attention to Joplin’s remarkable ‘scale of ambition’ in creating this piece of music featuring voices and orchestra.
The opera revolves around its heroine, Treemonisha, who attempts to free herself from a group of magicians who kidnap her; the work was also intended to make the broader and perhaps more powerful point about the importance of education in redeeming the lives of Black folk recently emancipated from slavery. Largely forgotten until 1972 when it was first performed as a joint production of the Morehouse College music department and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, ‘Treemonisha’ was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976.
In describing the historical context in which Treemonisha is situated, Soweto drew parallels between the socio-political milieu of the first decade of the 1900s and our contemporary period in the new millennium, shot through with disinformation and racism.
In his impressive distillation of the compositions of Elgar (‘Enigma Variations’) and Holst (‘The Planets: Jupiter – The Bringer of Jollity’), Soweto explored how music conjures up the pomp and ceremony of monarchy and heady thoughts of patriotism. He talked about Frederick Delius and how he was clearly influenced by African-American music while living in Florida – even though he appeared to want to “keep a safe distance” from the people whose music he was drawing on for creative sustenance.
Through her Classic Album Sundays website and social media channels, radio, host, DJ and journalist Colleen Murphy has created a globe-girdling listening event which attempts to tell the stories behind the LPs that have been decisive in influencing popular culture.
The concept was conceived as a response to the disposable ‘aural wallpaper’ service to which music has been put in modern times; audiences of the shows are permitted to “enjoy music contextually, communally, uninterrupted, and in the best sonic detail possible.”
Chatting afterwards, William Schomberg, who creates a monthly music show on Mixcloud under the name Billzinho, told me: “It was fascinating to hear two people steeped in music talk in such detail about not just the music but also the lives of the people who composed it and the way audiences have listened and reacted to it over the decades. The way Soweto tied it all together with his own piece from ‘White Juju’ melding classical music, jazz and hip hop brought the discussion full circle in a wonderful way.”