Pittsburgh Symphony pays homage to African American heroes


December 26, 2006

On Saturday, Jan. 20 at 8 p.m. the Pittsburgh Symphony will pay homage to African American heroes, and feature the world premier of Richard Danielpour's Pastime, in a concert conducted by resident conductor Daniel Meyer and featuring vocalist Nmon Ford.

Pastime grew out of a friendship between composer Richard Danielpour and poet Michael Harper. Their friendship began in 1987 and soon after, both realized they shared a love of America's pastime – baseball. One of America's most respected poets, Harper had written a powerful poem called “Blackjack” about Jackie Robinson. While a young boy, Danielpour had served as a batboy for the Atlanta Braves.

In 2003, Danielpour suggested the idea of setting “Blackjack” to music. Harper, a Brown University professor, responded with several more poems. Three were selected and the basis for Pastime was born. The baseball greats represented are Josh Gibson, Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron. The work was written for orchestra and soloist, a part which will feature internationally renowned baritone Nmon Ford.

Of the piece, Richard Danielpour said, “The work of poet/historian Michael Harper embodies much of the unofficial history of the 20th century. His poetry is highly influenced by the music he loves; jazz and blues sound through the lines and often appear as inspiration, metaphor or rhythm in individual poems. His poetry is filled with references to his past: history, experience and family – all strong inspirations that reverberate throughout his work.”

The piece chronicles the evolution of jazz just as civil rights has continued to evolve. Pastime represents jazz as it would have been during the time period each of the players lived: the ‘30s (Josh Gibson), the ‘40s and ‘50s (Jackie Robinson), and the ‘60s and ‘70s (Hank Aaron).

When asked why these players, PSO Vice President of Artistic Administration Robert Moir explained, “Josh Gibson's legend has grown to mythic proportion. If baseball had been integrated during his time, we would talk about Josh Gibson the way we talk about Babe Ruth. These athletes epitomize baseball like no others.”

Pittsburgh's own Josh Gibson played for both Pittsburgh Negro Leagues teams, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. Throughout his 17 year career, which included time in both Santo Domingo and Mexico, Gibson is said to have hit 962 career home runs. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, just three months after the death of Josh Gibson. He quickly made an impact on the game. During Robinson's ten seasons with the Dodgers, they won 6 pennants. He accomplished the rare feat of stealing home 19 times, becoming national League MVP in 1949 with a career total of 124 home runs.

Hank Aaron became the all-time home run champion with one of the most consistent offensive careers in baseball history. In addition to his 755 home runs, he also holds the major league records for total bases, extra base hits and RBIs. Aaron was named the 1957 National League MVP, won three Gold Gloves for his play in right field and was named to a record 24 All-Star squads.

Lawrence Tamburri, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Symphony said, “The Pittsburgh Symphony is proud to perform the world premiere of Pastime here in Heinz Hall.”

Pastime was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Atlanta Symphony, and the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. The orchestras are representative of the cities where the three men played: Pittsburgh, Brooklyn and Atlanta. This performance of Pastime is sponsored by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Neil Barclay, president and CEO of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, said, “We are excited to have played a part in the commissioning of this new work, especially as it relates the significance of another of Pittsburgh's African American icons, Josh Gibson.”

The rest of the program features music ranging from gospel, opera and traditional classical selections. Beethoven's Overture to Egmont, a piece about a man condemned to death for having taken a strong stand against oppression, Adolphus Hailstork's piece My Lord, What a Moanin' and selections from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess will also be performed.

Tickets are $25, $15 and $5. The Heinz Hall box office number is 412-392-4900 or visit http://www.pittsburghsymphony.org.


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