The lobby of Heinz Hall was packed and the air thick with anticipation; someone wrote a symphony for August Wilson. Youth groups, churches, families with young children had all come to witness this auspicious occasion.
“Lift Every Voice: Resonating Music, Words & Legacy” is the result of two years in the making that includes input from the Learning, Community and Inclusion Board Committee (LCI) and the Community Advisory Council. The concert was an homage to Pittsburgh legacies presented by young talent and local artists and ensemble.
The program, held Jan. 20, began with a drum call delivered by the Pittsburgh Cultural Arts Collective, immediately followed by Anqwenique Wingfield singing a favorite of Martin Luther King Jr., “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Classically trained, her operatic chops served her well as she performed acapella. A slideshow of Hill District scenes photographed by Teenie Harris was shown on a screen accompanied to song by Jay Ashby aptly titled, “Teenie Time.”
Composer Kathryn Bostic, who has worked with August Wilson scoring several of his plays, offered “State of Grace,” a song she composed and dedicated to Wilson’s memory as she accompanied herself on piano. Bostic was followed by famed actress Phylicia Rashad, who introduced the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Lyric for Strings composed by Coretta King’s favorite composer, George Walker.
Next was a performance by a young, extraordinary, talented teenager who has already made a name for herself as the 1st Place Laureate of the junior division of the prestigious 2017 Sphinx Competition. Ifetayo Ali, just 14 years old, mesmerized the astonished audience with her command of “Concerto in D minor for Cello and Orchestra” by Edouard Lalo.
The second half began with the world premiere of “The August Wilson Symphony” by Bostic with narration by Rashad (who portrayed Aunt Ester in “Gem of the Ocean” on Broadway). Comprised of five movements that incorporates the story of the sum of the Century Cycle. Each movement, introduced by Rashad, had names such as the Great Migration, The Hill Illumined, Wylie Avenue, Oracle of Aunt Ester and Exalted Roads of Truth and Triumph.
The symphony was followed by men from the Hill District Unity Choir, who performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” acapella in four-part harmony (think of Take 6), during which the audience stood up in recognition of the song and gave a rousing standing ovation. The rest of the choir joined them on stage to close the concert with Anthem of Praise by Richard Smallwood.
“I felt honored to witness the world premiere of a symphony composed by a Black woman highlighting the brilliant work of August Wilson,” said lifelong Hill resident Marimba Milliones. “Bravo to Kathryn Bostic on bringing her phenomenal vision to life. The compliment of the Hill District gospel performances, African drummers, local vocalist Anqwenique, and the young gifted cellist, Ifetayo Ali, made it a true once-in-a-lifetime experience. I am grateful to August Wilson’s family for allowing it to be launch here in Pittsburgh.”
August Wilson scholar Chris Rawson was also impressed.
“The variety of performers, musical styles and texts added up to an affirmation of the spiritual and artistic legacy of August Wilson,” said Rawson. “I think he would be very pleased; certainly, everyone who was there knew they were at something very special.”
“August would have been thrilled with the concert,” raved Larry Glasco, another Wilson scholar. “The themes of the Symphony were nicely aligned. August would also have enjoyed the vocal parts of the evening, the choral renditions and the moving solos. August was a ‘wordsmith’ with a special fondness for the power of the spoken word.”
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