Wind Ensemble Tour Highlights Music and Milestones of the Civil Rights Movement

by | Jan 7, 2019 | Diversity & Inclusion, Features, Outreach & Impact

The Wind Ensemble at DeSoto High School.

To learn about and commemorate the Civil Rights Movement in Arkansas and the Mid-South, the college’s University of Arkansas Wind Ensemble recently completed a three-state concert tour through Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi.

The tour covered nearly 700 miles from November 14-16, and both the music selected and performed during the tour and the physical tour itself focused on the Civil Rights Movement and its impact.

“The genesis of this tour and the selection of music began with the motto of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciencespeace through education,” said Chris Knighten, director of bands. 

The band performed pieces by four African American composers, highlighting different moments in the Civil Rights Movement. 

The first piece was William Grant Still’s A Fanfare for American Heroes, written to honor the members of the first African American aviators to serve in the U.S. Military, popularly known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Still was born in Mississippi in 1895, but grew up with his mother and grandmother in Little Rock. Concern for African Americans’ position in U.S. society is reflected in many of his works. He was also the first African American to conduct a professional symphony orchestra in the United States.

Wind Ensemble on stage at Little Rock Central High School.

The second piece was American Guernica by Adolphus Hailstork. It was written in remembrance of the fire-bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young girls attending Sunday school and injured 22 others.

The work’s title refers to the famous mural by painter Pablo Picasso, which depicts the bombing of Guernica, a Basque village, in 1937 by the Nazi regime at the request of Spanish nationalists. Picasso created the work to draw attention to the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War.

Balm in Gilead from American Hymnsong Suite by Dwayne Milburn was the third piece of the concert. The composer drew inspiration from his family’s history as church musicians, and the piece shares the richness of the well-known hymn while infusing it with jazz harmonies. 

The final piece selected was Of a New Day Begun by Omar Thomas. Thomas, who teaches music theory at the Peabody Institute, was commissioned to write the piece to honor the nine people killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015.

The Wind Ensemble’s first performance was at Little Rock Central High School, the site of one of the most pivotal moments in the Civil Rights Movement. After the concert, the ensemble took a tour that physically retraced the steps of the nine African American students that integrated the school in 1957 after the earlier landmark Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education. 

The Wind Ensemble tours Little Rock Central High School.

“Performing in such a historic building with music inspired by the tragedy and triumph of the Civil Rights Movement was a profound experience for all of us,” Knighten said.

The second performance took place at De Soto Central High School in Southaven, Mississippi, followed by a tour of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.    

“This has been one of the most humbling, meaningful and awakening experiences I have had and will never forget,” said Maggie Matheny, a senior music education major. “I walked away from the tour with a renewed [understanding of the] importance of educating yourself about the sacrifices of the past and the power of listening to understand someone instead of listening to respond to them.”

The Wind Ensemble then returned to the Hill for their final concert of the semester at the Jim and Joyce Faulkner Performing Arts Center on Monday, Nov. 19. 

The concert’s highlight and finale was Of Our New Day Begun by Omar Thomas. 

When introducing the piece, Thomas stated that it was imperative to him to include music that members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church would recognize. 

The Wind Ensemble tours Little Rock Central High School.

“All that I ask is that you find a way to hold space in your heart for their memories. Not of just the Charleston Nine but also surviving family members,” Thomas said.  

About the University of Arkansas Bands: The University of Arkansas Bands Program, part of the Department of Music in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, began in 1874 and is one of the oldest band programs in the country. The program has six ensembles including the Razorback Marching BandHogwild Band, and five concert bands with over 400 student members representing every college at the university.

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