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A new way to 'hear' Ferguson: Barbara Harbach's symphony premieres Oct. 6

photo of Barbara Harbach
Stephanie Zettl
Barbara Harbach

For good reasons and for bad ones, the north St. Louis County city of Ferguson has acquired an international reputation. Its name has spread through conversations about social justice and inequities, including economic and educational issues. Art also has spread impressions of the city, more positive than not, and has come to play a significant, sometimes cathartic role in the life of Ferguson.

Most of the works of art are visual – drawings, paintings on wood used to board up buildings, even professionally produced prints that exalt the hands-up posture. There had not been a major musical endeavor such as a symphony. Now there is.

On Oct. 6, you can hear how a city sounds when set to music. "Symphony for Ferguson” by Barbara Harbach, a professor of music at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, will premiere at a 7:30 p.m. concert at the Touhill Performing Arts Center.

Harbach is a composer of symphonic and chamber music works, musicals, choral works and works for various keyboard instruments. Her resume includes academic research on women composers, and she also performs the demanding job of first lady of UMSL. She is the wife of Chancellor Thomas F. George, who, by the way, is a spectacular jazz pianist, in demand in and out of the region.

But let’s rewind.

Before Aug. 8, 2014, views of Ferguson were pictures of a small, once independent town with its own railway station and its own identity. Although now absorbed into sprawl, it maintains some of that small-town quality. Ferguson is Andy-Hardy pretty in places, places are set apart from the blink-flash of lights on the main thoroughfare, West Florissant Road, and distinguished by beautiful old frame houses set in the middle of well manicured lawns. And there are marginal and distressed neighborhood,s too, like Canfield Green.

The thoroughfare itself is what urban design critics would characterize as an American suburban mess, populated by the usual enterprises: fast-food restaurants, filling stations, groceries, a coffee shop that doubles as a meeting place, some empty storefronts and so on.

Before Aug. 8 last year, life went on in relative peace in Ferguson, although one could characterize it as a city “in transition” and for many who live there, no picnic. On Aug. 9, an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on Canfield Drive. In an instant, Ferguson became not only a place name but shorthand for social unrest, racism, trigger happy-ness, racial and economic disparities, codified injustices and perhaps worse, in the hearts of so many innocents, despair.

University professor of music and interim dean James E. Richards says, "Quietly, Ferguson is a centerpoint in all meetings on our campus. Universities can and should be involved in the lives of the communities in which they exist."

UMSL is a good neighbor to Ferguson and surrounding municipalities. The Creative Achievement in the Arts Award program is one of the neighborly programs. So is a program nicknamed CHOCD, the Center for Human Origins and Cultural Diversity. It examines our own origins as well as the “importance and significance of both biological and cultural diversity.” Another indication of intense interest in Ferguson and the entire region is St. Louis Public Radio’s "We Live Here" program, an on-going program designed to dig and to discover the roots of social inequities, the better to eliminate them. St. Louis Public Radio is licensed through UMSL.

And now, as a part of all that, this symphony intends musically to speak of a 21st century city that bristles with complications and contradictions. It is anything but a dirge, a sorrowing symphony. It is serious, however. Harbach said, “When I said I want to write a Ferguson symphony, the Missouri Humanities Council offered to provide funding for it.”

Richards is an enthusiastic spokesman for the Oct. 6 concert – and for Harbach’s "Symphony for Ferguson.” He said the symphony had been in the works for two or three hundred years, meaning that in those centuries many composers produced work with political and social underscores, subtle sometimes but often fortissimo.

“Artists live in and respond to their world,” Richards said. Take Beethoven, for example. His Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica") was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Beethoven regarded as vigorous and committed in standing for democracy and against monarchy. Eventually, that admiration faded and Napoleon was relieved of the dedication by the composer; in subsequent printings, his name was scrubbed from the face of the score.

The music to be heard Oct. 6, Richards said, “represents the work of composers from Beethoven in the 18th century to Barbara Harbach working today.” Then there is George Walker. His “Lyric for Strings” is on the program. He's the first living African American to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Richards said also that while the composition is about Ferguson and the region, it also is about the lives of many members of the staff, faculty and students.

And it is, of course, about Harbach -- her ideas and concerns, musically and otherwise. "Symphony for Ferguson" brings together her new work and quotations from other efforts,  including her musical “Booth!” about John Wilkes Booth’s family and the crisis it faced after he killed President Lincoln. Harbach also has found inspiration in the lives of Harriet and Dred Scott, and their case, tried in the Old Courthouse downtown.

In a 2012 UMSL Daily reported that Harbach's “A State Divided – Missouri Symphony for Orchestra" "expands her musical work based on St. Louis and Missouri landmarks including 'Freedom Suite for String Orchestra,' inspired by the Dred and Harriet Scott legal struggle for their freedom, and 'Harriet’s Story for Soprano, Violin, and Piano,' inspired by Harriet Scott and Harriet Tubman."

Harbach said she was trying to answer a question many have asked in recent years: “How do I express myself through the chaos?”

Richards said the program is not meant to be judgmental – not pro or anti anyone. “We are not putting our students in the position of advocating."

Those students, he said, like playing new pieces – eventually. “At first they hate the work, but then they come to like it. Like this piece – it is pertinent to their culture. They spend a lot of time playing the music of dead white guys. This (the symphony) is modern and pertinent.”

Here is the program for Oct. 6 – pertinent but not altogether modern.

Each work on the program has a connection through the composition itself or its the historical/social context or the composer’s background to some aspect of social justice. Richards said it presents about 45 minutes of music.

  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”)
  • George Walker: Lyric for Strings
  • Barbara Harbach: Symphony for Ferguson (premiere)
  • Spiritual: Ask the Watchman, arranged by Paul Caldwell and Sean Ivory
  • Wm. Steffe: Battle Hymn of the Republic

Jim Henry, associate professor of music and director of choral studies, is the conductor of the University Singers, and Richards is conductor of the University Orchestra. Jacqueline Thompson, visiting assistant professor in the university’s theater department, is compiling readings to complement the music.
“We pride ourselves on being cross disciplinary,” Richards said.