Tuesday, March 31, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Honor: The Voice at Carnegie Hall

Last week, I had the pleasure of watching the final performance of Honor: The Voice at Carnegie Hall. Curated by Jessye Norman, the show featured 6 young opera singers, 4 pianists, and an evening of traditional opera pieces, spirituals, and pop/Broadway numbers. The festival exists to "celebrate the African America cultural legacy".

The set up was simple and elegant - a grand piano, a pianist, and a singer on a bare, shining stage. No microphones. The talent radiating from the stage was so pure and overwhelming that I had to physically prevent my mouth from hanging open. The power and emotion of the music in those voices on the Perelman Stage filled the Stern Auditorium and then some.

My friend, Chris, who runs the international education program at the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, explained to me that this festival exceeded all expectations. The audience was much more multi-cultural than usual and the sales were impressive. On a Monday night, the auditorium was packed and as I looked around, I could see every race, every age range, and an even mix of men and women. That festival brought together a community of diversity rarely seen at most New York institutions. Inclusive and diverse, it was representative of our city's population - in other words, exactly what an audience should be.

And you might wonder what on Earth a white girl like me from a small rural town in upstate New York is doing at a place that celebrates the African American cultural legacy. I wondered, too. I love the music that was presented and the diversity of my city, though do I really belong here? Do I have the right to celebrate and honor a legacy that is not mine? Was I welcome?

According to Jessye Norman, the answers are yes, yes, and yes, because this legacy actually is my legacy. It is every American's legacy. In her signature, elegant manner, I had the great fortune to hear Ms. Norman speak about the festival and its importance, not just to African Americans, but to all of us. If we live in America, then the history of African Americans is our history and we have not only the right but the obligation to pay tribute to it. The feeling of inclusion, respect, and admiration in that auditorium was undeniable. I am honored to have had the opportunity to bear witness to the performance and to the inspiration it provided for all of us within its reach.

At the end of the performance, the audience cheered and applauded with great energy and Ms. Norman looked on with pride. Her performers, however, would not let it go at that. They brought her to the center of the stage, applauding, hugging, and kissing her. You could see and feel their gratitute to this great talent standing before all of us. Through my loud applause, I hope she knows that I am grateful to her, too.

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