After a hiatus last year due to the pandemic, the Yale Schools of Music’s Norfolk Chamber music Festival is returning this summer.  

The festival, which is believed to be the oldest chamber music festival in the country, will feature a series of livestreamed performances this July and August.  

And on July 9th, the festival will launch a new multi-year project entitled “Musical Bridges,” which will feature the premiere of a piece by acclaimed composer, violinist and educator, Daniel Bernard Roumain. The powerful work is based on the killing of Philando Castile by a Minneapolis police officer in 2016.  

Zydalis Bauer spoke with Roumain as well as Melvin Chen, the festival director, to learn more about how this project will use classical music to expand cultural conversations.  


Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: This summer, the Yale School of Music’s Norfolk Chamber Music Festival is returning after a hiatus last year due to the pandemic.

The festival, which is believed to be the oldest chamber music festival in the country, will feature a series of live stream performances this July and August.

And on July 9th, the festival will be launching a new multi-year project entitled “Musical Bridges,” with the premiere of a piece by acclaimed composer, violinist, and educator Daniel Bernard Roumain. The powerful work is based on the killing of Philando Castile by a Minneapolis police officer in 2016.

I spoke with Roumain, as well as Melvin Chen, the festival director, to learn more about how this project will use classical music to expand cultural conversations.

Melvin Chen, Norfolk Chamber Music Festival: Classical music, you know, I think justifiably so, has always had a reputation of being kind of elitist, for older people. You know, there our tradition is primarily white and European and dead males, you know?

But I think any artistic field, is it living field, right? Any art has to keep growing and has to keep evolving. And so I think, you know, part of that is being able to reckon with the tradition which we had and move forward from it.

And I think that, you know, especially in America, with such a multicultural society, that classical music has to participate in that, has to participate in the societal conversations going on, has to participate in the music that’s being generated.

Zydalis Bauer: Daniel, Musical Bridges is launching with the premiere of your piece entitled “Twin Stars: Thirty Two Diamond Variations for Diana,” which focuses on the fatal shooting of Philando Castile by a Minneapolis police officer in 2016.

Why did you choose to focus on this incident in particular for your piece?

Daniel Bernard Roumain, Composer: Because I feel that as a Black Haitian American composer, working in a field that has a long and continued history of exclusion, it was important for me to create a work that could speak to an American family. That could speak to, um…the human qualities that bind us together that oftentimes are absent.

And I think that any commission, for me, is an opportunity to shine a hot, bright light on a recurring pattern of inhumanity, injustice, and racism.

Zydalis Bauer: Daniel, you’ve stated that diversity, equity, and inclusion is in the best interest of public health, and that classical music needs to look at that as a guiding principle.

As a Black Haitian American composer, how do you hope to inspire other BIPOC musicians (BIPOC standing for Black Indigenous People of Color)?

Daniel Bernard Roumain: There’s a term, ancestral futurism, right, that to really evolve, you have to hold on to the past and pull it with you. And that there’s constant learning that the past tells us.

So when I say something that sounds inflammatory, like “classical music is racist,” what I’m getting at is that classical music operates within an American patriarchical society that was founded in a, well, brutal type of racism. The most brutal, right? A group of people who had to work, who had to, who were not seen as people who were seen as a part of an industry, right?. That’s sinister. That’s absolutely sinister.

And, you know, classical music, like it or not, is operating within, I think, a continued pattern of systemic racism that can only be met with continued patterns of systemic anti-racism.

Zydalis Bauer: Music is obviously more than just entertainment for the both of you. As musicians and educators, what drives both of your musical purposes?

Melvin Chen: What I really want to try to do, is to do my part in dragging classical music back into the center of culture, where it can be part of these conversations. And the way to do that is to connect what is happening in America, the people that are in America, the music that is in America, to classical music.

To say to ourselves, “OK, look, classical music has in its past, these things that we have to deal with” is our history, is our baggage, as Daniel says. But moving forward, how can we do it in a way that’s more inclusive and, you know, has the possibility of participating in the important conversations that we’re having right now?

Daniel Bernard Roumain: I see the score, any score, anything that I write, as a type of cultural documentation.

Daniel Bernard Roumain, Composer: You know, if you really want to understand Viennese culture in the, I don’t know, mid 18th century, you know, look Bach, look to the second Viennese — or sorry, the first Viennese school, right?

If you really want to understand World War One or Two,  look at the scores of anyone from Stravinsky to to Shostakovich.

If you really want to understand the 1970s, come on, Curtis Mayfield, you all, right? I mean, you really want to understand 1980s and you’re not going to listen to Madonna?

That’s another way to look at it, right? You know, to put it another way, I could write Symphony Number One. I could write Piano Quintet or, you know, or whatever, this Piano Septet Number One. Doesn’t tell you a lot. Nothing nothing wrong with that, but it’s not my purpose.

My purpose, again, is to to be a kind of a sentinel, to be a reminder that if you’re going to listen to a piece of mine and or be in my audience, this is what is important to me. And by the way, right, that is no different than what every composer has ever done.

Zydalis Bauer: And I want to just go back to a point that you made. The snapshot in time of music, do you think that is a way to have classical music in particular, be reflective of the American society, Is create pieces like you are doing that is a snapshot of the time we are living in right now?

Daniel Bernard Roumainr: Sure. And BIPOC composers have done that. I’m part of a legacy, a rich legacy, of composers of color, BIPOC composers worldwide who have done just that. We may not know of them, and in some cases we will never know of them, and that’s really unfortunate, but that’s part of racism’s tenacity and effectiveness.

There’s a rich history of BIPOC and Black people being involved in, and a part of and helping to frame, classical music. So, I’m picking up that now.