ArtsWatch diary: Niel DePonte goes to Dayton to hear his ‘With Grace and Justice for All’

At a mostly black church in Dayton, the Dayton Philharmonic performs Niel DePonte's new work on justice and 'Amazing Grace'


Editor’s note: ArtsWatch asked percussionist/conductor/composer Niel DePonte to keep a diary of his trip to Dayton, Ohio, for a performance of his newest composition, With Grace and Justice for All, which the Dayton Philharmonic was performing in an African-American church as part of its extensive outreach efforts in the city. It was the first time DePonte had heard the piece, which uses the hymn Amazing Grace as a musical starting point and intersperses quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela into the music. And at the end, something remarkable happened.

“Each piece of music is like one’s own life: it has beginning, a middle, and an end…and then it is gone.” —Anon

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

I am flying to Ohio to attend the world premiere of my new composition With Grace and Justice for All (WG&J) by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. It is always gratifying to hear one’s own work performed, but especially this one for me. It is a deeply personal piece about social justice in which my music weaves through relevant writings of Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

During the past few weeks, I have played a midi sound file of WG&J for a few close friends. Almost without exception each listener has ultimately asked the following question, “What inspired you to write this particular work?”

I found the question far harder to answer than it might seem. Why did I write a piece on the idea of “amazing grace,” in its literal, musical, and figurative sense, and connect my music to words spoken by these two icons of civil rights?

The Dayton Philharmonic's performance of Niel DePonte's "With Grace and Justice for All," St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church/Niel DePonte

The Dayton Philharmonic’s performance of Niel DePonte’s “With Grace and Justice for All,” St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church/Niel DePonte

Searching for an answer, I’ve come to two key questions. The first is, “What inspires creative artists to create?” That one spins off some sub-questions: What compels us to make something where there was nothing before…to fill the blank canvas, the staff paper, or the empty stage? Are we merely trying to communicate with others of our species? What is it we are trying to say, or even do, to our audience? Why do we think they will even care to listen to, let alone understand, our idiosyncratic artistic language? Is our message easily defined? Is it concrete or familiar in some way, or is it more ephemeral, like knowing that clouds are real, but also knowing they cannot be fully grasped, owned, or taken home?

Since the composer assumes the work will be performed and knows that a work must inspire its performers in order to have maximum impact on the observer, the second question is, “What inspires performers to perform? At some level, every performing artist believes in the value of being the medium through which a composer’s message is passed, the keeper of that particular flame, the guardian of something so precious that we struggle thousands of hours to make its presentation just so, to be somehow sure that we have done our best, given our all to convey the essence and the power of the composer’s message.

The composer deeply wants the performers to be inspired by the work and to approach it with this sort of devotion. They hold the first level of the world’s “getting it” in their hands. If the performers get the meaning of the work and are inspired by the message, then the observer has the best chance of getting it as well.

Perhaps my inspiration had something to do with what used to be called the theory of the Great Man…and what I will now call the theory of the Great Person, a 19th-century idea according to which history can be largely explained by the existence and actions of great people: individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact, as Wikipedia succinctly defines it. Certainly, in my view, King and Mandela were such great individuals.

I rather agree with the Russian philosopher Leonid Grinin’s definition of a Great Person or, more specifically, a historical figure:

Owing to his personal features, or to chance, or to his social standing, or to the peculiarity of the epoch, an individual by the very fact of his existence, by his ideas or actions (or inaction) directly or indirectly, during his lifetime or after his death may have such an influence upon his own or another society which can be recognized significant as he left a noticeable mark (positive, negative or unambiguous) in history and in the further development of society. The Role of an Individual in History: A Reconsideration. Social Evolution & History

When Nelson Mandela died on December 5, 2013, I felt the world was mourning the loss of a great man, a man who spoke truth to power, who suffered for his beliefs, and who rallied others to his cause not merely because he had charisma and sway over others, but also because his cause was just.

As Americans, we are brought up to see as inextricably linked, and to hold dear, the causes of justice and freedom. These specific abstract ideals, once understood and experienced in concrete terms, offer hope, fire the imagination, and inspire action (often in that very order). They inspired the American Revolution, the US Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Civil Rights Act. They were also the driving force behind the passage of the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Mandela repeatedly referred when he addressed the U.N.’s special meeting of the Special Committee against Apartheid in 1990 in New York.

We are also brought up to believe in the capacity of any one person to change the world if the cause is just…especially if they have the ephemeral quality of grace to go along with undeniable charisma and skills of oratory or the written word. Grace is often defined as “divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification,” or “a virtue coming from God.” I believe that any great effort to create change in the larger society requires leaders who are filled with a faith that their cause is just…a faith that borders on the religious. And so it has been that individuals who are carried by the force of an amazing grace are capable of expanding justice and freedom to all of us.

Friday, June 5, 2015

As the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra (DPO) prepares to perform my piece, I have spent the last two days in Dayton meeting with conductor Neal Gittleman, a friend of more than 30 years. Neal is a compact bundle of musical wisdom. Sixty years old and balding a bit, he still cuts a dashing figure on the podium. I mean, this is the guy who did Tai Chi on stage while Yo Yo Ma was accompanying him during a concert (at Yo Yo’s behest). A former student of Nadia Boulanger (whose students included Aaron Copland, Elliot Carter, Quincy Jones, Philip Glass and Virgil Thomson), his capacity to analyze and execute musical scores of great complexity as well as to bring out the beauty of a simple phrase is unequalled.

On Sunday I’ll hear a brief rehearsal of the work and attend a performance at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church. This is one of three performances given as part of the DPO’s Stained Glass series, three concerts that take place in area churches and are free and open to the public. The DPO’s mission in these performances is to “bring the community and the Dayton Philharmonic together to celebrate the human spirit through the universal medium of music.”

Dayton is a Rust Belt city making a comeback. Old factories are being renovated into studios and condos. Newer buildings are going up containing shops and housing. Early in his career Neal was an assistant conductor for the Oregon Symphony. Since he arrived in Ohio 20 years ago, after stints in Syracuse and Milwaukee, he has been central to revitalizing the Dayton arts scene. The Stained Glass Concerts are part of his evolving legacy for orchestral music in this part of the Midwest.

As Gittleman mentions in remarks that will precede the concert, With Grace and Justice For All was started immediately after the death of Mandela and completed on the first anniversary of his death in 2014. The compositional style of the piece is based, in part, upon the work Christian Zeal and Activity by the American composer John Adams. Like the Adams, a repeating verbal, oratorical motive flows throughout the piece. It is found in King’s words, “Take a stand for that which is right.”

The melody of Amazing Grace takes up nearly every measure of WG&J, for the tune is stretched out across nearly the entire 171 measures of the piece. It evolves for 13 minutes, in an incredibly slow “augmentation” of the material, as a hymn-like chorale in which the full melody is stated just one time in the first violin part.

Four interruptions of Amazing Grace’s melodic evolution come when the re-harmonized melody of Amazing Grace itself is inserted twice, in two separated halves, during the course of the piece. A woodwind quintet enters on top of the string chords each time, playing the melody at a faster, more recognizable speed. That same ensemble creates two other, more dissonant moments during the piece when the melodies We Shall Overcome and God Bless Africa (the former African National Congress anthem) are juxtaposed over the top of Amazing Grace, bi-tonally (i.e. playing in a different key).

Neal Gittelman conducted the Dayton Philharmonic as it played Niel DePonte's "With Grace and Justice for All" in St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church/Niel DePonte

Neal Gittelman conducted the Dayton Philharmonic as it played Niel DePonte’s “With Grace and Justice for All” in St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church/Niel DePonte

Because Mandela grew up in heavily Christian South Africa, one song he and King certainly had in common was the hymn Amazing Grace, a Protestant church anthem that became connected to the civil rights movement in America by singer Joan Baez and others during the 1960’s. In creating WG&J, I reflected upon what these two great men, who suffered dearly for their causes and who led pivotal movements for social change and justice in their respective countries, had in common. I was inspired to search for something within myself, something musical, that might represent the connection I felt between their beliefs and my beliefs, for music is the tool I use to express my deepest knowing. And, as King and Mandela hoped to influence others, I was inspired to compose a work that might do the same.

I hope all citizens who hear WG&J realize that events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, current events, provide each of us with an opportunity to reflect upon what justice really is. I also believe the piece provides a deeper truth about King and Mandela: what will bind these two great men together for eternity and what binds them to all of us, is their ability to inspire the least of us to look deeply into our souls and decide, when the moment is thrust upon us, whether we will choose to “take a stand for that which is right.”

For me, the combination of the melodies Amazing Grace, We Shall Overcome, and God Bless Africa, form a worthy foundation underneath the texts of King and Mandela throughout WG&J. As a whole, it is my hope that the words of King and Mandela and my harmonies blend in a way that moves people to remember the work to which these men devoted their lives, and gave their lives, and also to realize that their work is unfinished. For as Dr. King said, wherever injustice exists, the work is unfinished. Whenever freedom is compromised, the work is unfinished. And whenever any of us turn a deaf ear to social injustice of any kind, we make more difficult the work that remains unfinished.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

It’s the morning of the concert and it’s so warm in Dayton it seems summer is just around the corner. Though I’ve had pieces of mine published—and performed many pieces I have written for myself as soloist or conductor—it occurs to me that this is the first time I’ve ever attended a premiere of one of my compositions when I wasn’t actually performing. It feels oddly discomforting. I’m used to having some direct influence on the outcome of a performance as a percussionist or conductor. But the idea of just sitting there and hearing something performed, as personal as this work feels to me, leaves me at loose ends now, just three hours before the performance.

This is why I don’t think of myself as a composer but more as a guy who writes music once in a while. Real composers write three hours a day and are way more prolific than I am. I have always owned the idea of being a player; it’s safe behind all those large drums on stage. And years ago I owned being a conductor, which involves much more personal exposure but I still get to affect the performance and I’m comfortable there (of course my back is to the audience until the end).

But today I am going to watch people respond to something I wrote while I sit among them. Lots of other things add to the anxiety. I’m one of 15 white people in the church, and, although I feel completely welcome, I feel out of place in this African American church in Dayton. I’ve never heard this piece live, and I don’t know if it will sound like I imagine it should. Will the audience like it? I know I’ll get a bow after it is over and then people will come up to me and say nice things and ask questions. But this is an experience I am not used to in music. I’ve been making music for so long that I’m comfortable in certain realms, but this isn’t one of them. No one here knows me at all. They will see me as the composer. That is an odd feeling.

St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, where today’s concert takes place, is in a suburb of Dayton known as Trotwood. It’s a modern church on the outside and feels sort of small on the inside. It seats perhaps 500 people. The orchestra is set up mostly on the floor in front of the altar, with a few winds, brass and percussion on the altar steps. If you sat in the first pew, you could whisper in a cellist’s ear. Acoustically, it is what you’d expect from a church: It has the reverberation time of most large marble bathrooms, about three to four seconds. But for my piece, this is actually a good thing for the music moves quite slowly and the strings sound lush.

The program lists the composers and their pieces, and it is jolting to see them listed: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Symphony No. 20), Antonio Vivaldi (“Spring,” from The Four Seasons) and Niel DePonte (WG&J). My first thought is, “which one of these guys does not belong.”

As I listen to a run-through, it seems as if the sound system is only working on one side. Gittleman and I try to fix that and decide to do it in the half-hour between the rehearsal and the concert. It gets fixed. And at 5:00 pm we begin.

The people who fill the hall are almost entirely African-American; the orchestra, as per usual is not. It matters not to anyone. The concert begins with the Mozart. The reverb time in the hall has been cut down by the audience’s presence so the sound is clear and light. The Vivaldi’s first movement is played beautifully by concertmaster Jessica Hung, a player who knows how to shape a phrase with style and elegance. The next piece is mine.

I sit in the last pew, though still not 20 feet from the 1st violins. Gittleman raises his baton, and the piece, sounding to the audience like a hymn of apparently unknown origin, begins to unfold. After 90 seconds, when the first words of King and Mandela start to carry over the orchestra, the audience is eerily quiet and focused in a way I have never witnessed. Each section of the piece, each quotation or excerpt from a speech that reminds us to do what is right, or speaks of the Good Samaritan, or discusses how agents of the state can try to stop the emergence of Mandela’s hoped for “non-racial democracy,” causes more and more heads to nod in agreement with the words. Gittleman’s pacing is perfect, the orchestra’s playing is inspired. They get it.

Ten minutes into the piece, the orchestra builds to its ultimate climax when King declaims that if you walk the path of righteousness, you are one with God: that, “one with God is a majority”; that if you walk with God, “you’re goin’ with justice, you’re goin’ with goodness!” At this very moment, after some 10 minutes of soft playing has relentlessly crescendoed to a fortissimo A major chord the music…abruptly…stops, as it is written.

What follows is remarkable. In the six interminable seconds of silence before the music begins again, before the pianissimo, reflective, church hymn returns, I hear people gasp, and one quietly say, “Wow.” At this point I am struggling not to break down, because everyone else around me is weeping.

There are only a few minutes left to reach the end where King vows he, “will not bow to the gods of evil.” Where he and Mandela remind us all to, “Take a stand for that which is right!” and the last strains of Amazing Grace are stated in the woodwinds. As the final G major chord fades away in the high strings there is a moment of silence. And then thunderous applause. People stand up as one. Gittleman looks at me, points and asks me to come forward. I am sort of in a daze. I embrace him, I shake the concertmaster’s hand and am directed to stand on the podium.

I want to remember the moment, I really do, but I was completely stunned. I know they were standing and applauding for many minutes, but it was all I could do to bow and acknowledge the musicians. What had happened for these people over the last 13 minutes? What compelled them to stand and cheer for a white kid from Brooklyn who brought them a piece about great men who shared their ancestry, not mine?

Which brings us back to the word inspiration. I believe the audience and the performers responded not to me, but to the source of my inspiration. The work is about a concept that binds all Americans together, the idea of justice…about standing up for what is morally right when faced with circumstances that are morally wrong.

Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” That arc bends from our Founding Fathers, through Abraham Lincoln, through Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, through those who marched for justice in Selma, through those who today march for justice in Baltimore, through the Italian kid from Brooklyn, and through all of us.

Each of us who believes in justice is connected to all who believe in justice. At all times, but especially at this time in America, it is time to “take a stand for that which is right.”

When the performance ended, probably 100 people came up and shook my hand. They thanked me over and over, and all I could say was, “Thank you. It’s really all about the words.” Some folks had come back to hear it for the second time, as it had been played a few weeks earlier at another church. And they are going to hear it again at a third church next week. One black man said, “Thank you for supporting my people. You are my brother.” Another said, “It reminds us all that black lives matter.” A black woman, the concert’s sponsor, handed me her card and said, “If there is anything I can do for you…” I was dumbfounded…and completely humbled.

I left the concert reminded of the power of music and the power of oratory, the power of ideas, the power of concepts like justice, equality, beauty, spirituality, and God. When you are moved by such ideas and transported to a state of deepest feeling, inspiration becomes available to you in a way that is not normal or usual. And that inspiration unlocks a door that opens onto the gifts you hold inside for personal expression. Suddenly you, or at least I, have to sit at a piano and find voicings for the voice within…tones that match the feelings, rhythms that match the mood, meaning in the melodies.

For me, the shaping of musical intensities across staff paper, those created by texture, harmony, dissonance and resolution, over time, paints a sonic picture—and it is one that matches the flow of the emotional intensities within me. These intense emotions that I experience, that wash over me, that I suddenly can access…I believe this is the thing we call inspiration, a sense that only comes from deeply contemplating the seriousness and the depth of the subject at hand.

That’s all I can tell you about what inspired me to write With Grace and Justice for All. However, in truth the short answer is this: I just had to get it out. I didn’t have a choice.

“If beauty is the salvation of all mankind, what a great responsibility [we, as artists,] have before us.” —Natalia Makarova, ballerina

UPDATE: Neal Gittleman announced today that because With Grace and Justice for All had received such an overwhelming response and had such an important message, it will be added to the Dayton Philharmonic’s subscription classical series in March 2016.

Niel DePonte is the music director and conductor for Oregon Ballet Theater. He is also principal percussionist of the Oregon Symphony, executive artistic director of MetroArts Inc, and a 2003 Grammy nominee.

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