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The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed

By Walter Bitner

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As protests erupted this summer in cities across the country against police violence and inequity, I felt it was best to use this column to share something that may help further understanding, compassion, and hopefully change. If you are an American choral director, you need to know this piece, right now, and someday, when circumstances allow our choirs to resume rehearsals and performances, I hope that you will consider programming it.

Every February since 2016 I have attended SphinxConnect, the annual Sphinx conference in Detroit, Michigan. This year was my fifth year in a row attending “the epicenter for artists and leaders in diversity” and in the years since I first attended I have seen it grow from a single continuous series of presentations for about 300 people, to nearly a thousand people (900 in 2019, and the crowd this year seems comparable) picking and choosing sessions from multiple tracks.

SphinxConnect grew out of the Sphinx Competition, a national competition for Black and Latinx classical string players founded by Aaron Dworkin in 1996. As the Sphinx Organization grew and developed programming beyond the competition, the mission to improve diversity or DEI (diversity, equity & inclusion as I have often heard it labelled) in classical music has grown immensely in every field in the arts and in the world.

There are many reasons that this is my favorite conference to attend, including the focus on a mission that I am passionate about and the many friends I have made who work in similar capacities that I can count on seeing there. But I think SphinxConnect’s greatest strength is in truth its diversity. The great beauty of this conference is that it truly is for everyone who works in the arts, and people from all capacities attend, including instrumental musicians – the conference focuses around the competition and there is a full orchestra of Black and Latinx players to perform the honors concert for the Junior Division Honors Concert and the thrilling Senior Division Honors Concert.

Hundreds of others also attend: administrators, conductors, composers, funders, artist representatives, parents, friends, and graduate, undergraduate, and high school students. Many institutions are represented: major music conservatories, music schools, universities and colleges; community music schools; dozens of symphony orchestras from across the country, large and small; and many professional soloists and chamber groups. No other gathering of any kind, and none of the others of the many conferences I have attended for professionals in performing arts and music education have anything near approaching the diversity of this conference.

Choral music has been a featured part of programming at SphinxConnect for several years. The strongest memory I have of choral music at Sphinx was the stunning performance The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed by Emmy Award-winning Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson in 2017 (view it here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdNXoqNuLRQ). The performance took place at the closing finals concert with the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra and University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club, conducted by Eugene Rogers, director of choral activities for the University of Michigan, and now artistic director of The Washington Chorus.

The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed is a moving choral work originally scored for male chorus, string quintet and piano, then later scored for full orchestra for the premiere at SphinxConnect 2017. Seven movements represent the last words from seven lost lives, the lives of black men killed by police: Kenneth Chamberlain, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, and Eric Garner. Using the text structure of the Joseph Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ, each victim’s last words are set in a different musical style and Thompson incorporates the “L’homme armé” (The armed man) renaissance French secular tune throughout.

The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed has been performed around the country now, and if you are an American choral director, and if you are involved in choral music and diversity in any way, you need to learn about and hear this piece. There is simply no other artistic response to the pain and fury being expressed in communities across our nation that is more contemporary or relevant.

For those of us who are part of the Sphinx community, this very special piece has been held dear since its premiere at SphinxConnect three years ago as the most profound contemporary musical expression of the grief, rage, and despair experienced by the disenfranchised and oppressed people in our country.

Learn more at sevenlastwords.org.

Walter Bitner is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, conductor, and teacher, and serves as director of education & community engagement for the Richmond Symphony Orchestra in Richmond, Virginia. He writes about music and education on his blog Off The Podium at walterbitner.com.

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