San Diego music aficionados are hearing and seeing quite a bit of composer Carlos Simon these days. He was with the San Diego Symphony at The Rady Shell last month to introduce the premiere of his commissioned symphony Wake Up: A Concerto for Orchestra the week before the orchestra performed the work on its New York City Carnegie Hall concert, the culmination of the orchestra’s October East Coast tour.This Thursday at UC San Diego’s Price Center, Simon returns to introduce the performance of his Requiem for the Enslaved, a substantial work whose recent recording was nominated for a 2023 GRAMMY award. And Friday night he will return to The Rady Shell where the San Diego Symphony will reprise his Wake Up: A Concerto for Orchestra.
And on a more modest scale, violinist Kate Hatmaker played Simon’s “Between Worlds” for solo violin at last Sunday afternoon’s Art of Elan concert at The Rady Shell.
My first encounter with a live performance of music by Carlos Simon was his searing Elegy: A Cry from the Grave for string orchestra, a work written to honor the lives of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. During the Covid lockdown, it was streamed on one of the San Diego Symphony’s 2021 online concerts conducted by Music Director Rafael Payare. Payare was sufficiently impressed with Elegy to offer Simon a commission.
“He came to me and asked for a work to celebrate the opening of the orchestra’s hall when its renovation was completed,” Simon explained. “But I felt that I needed to see this building in order to write this piece, so I came to San Diego and visited the hall.”
When Simon gave his introduction to Wake Up before the premiere October, he noted that because Copley Symphony Hall was originally a movie palace from the glory days of Hollywood, he was inspired to employ some of the style and panache of successful motion picture scores in his composition. But something else about experiencing the room in the midst of construction gave him inspiration.
“I saw stacks of pipes all around the place, pipes that would be used in the construction, and I was certain we could use some of the metal pipes to sound in the composition. It also seemed to me that the room itself was asleep and needed to be revived, so that prompted the title ‘Wake Up’.
“I chose the form of the concerto for orchestra so that each section of the orchestra would have a chance individually to adapt their sound to the room’s new acoustical setting. Each section would have its chance to wake up the hall!”
In my review of the orchestra’s October premiere of Simon’s Wake Up, I wrote: The percussion section proved unusually engaged throughout, and I doubt that I will ever again have the opportunity to observe Principal Percussion Gregory Cohen striking—with his customary discipline—a large piece of metal construction debris with a hefty hardware store hammer.
Since Simon currently serves as Composer-in-Residence at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and the National Symphony is also in residence at the Kennedy Center, Simon felt it only made sense to invite the National Symphony to be part of the commissioning team. “The National Symphony will give its first performance of Wake Up in January, 2024, and then take it on their February European Tour, which means it will be heard in Milan, Barcelona, Berlin, and several other cities.”
Simon explained that he was brought up in a very musical family, but their music was entirely bound up with the church. “In my family, it was expected that men would become ministers and start churches or serve as deacons or missionaries. In Atlanta, when I was ten, my dad started a church, and it was my job to provide the music. I hadn’t taken piano lessons, so I turned to my uncles to show me how to play for church. The first piece of music I wrote was a song for the choir, although I don’t remember what the text was.”
At an Atlanta high school for the performing arts, however, Simon’s musical world expanded from the confines of the church, and he found himself as accompanist for staged musicals as well as accompanying the choir and even dance programs. And the piano department introduced him to the instrument’s classical repertory from Bach forward that he missed in the Pentecostal church.
But he retained an important skill from his church experience: improvisation. “Improvisation is a huge part of what I do as a composer. When I played for church, I learned to ‘read the room,’ to sense the emotion of the moment and provide the music that supported it. That skill has never left me, and when I compose, the flow of improvisation develops the emotions behind the musical themes.”
Improvisation plays an important role in Simon’s 2022 Requiem for the Enslaved, although this unusual Requiem was prompted by an ugly chapter in the history of Georgetown University, whose faculty Simon joined in 2019. “I learned that in 1838 the Jesuits who ran the university sold 272 slaves to plantations in Louisiana,” Simon stated. Some historical sources indicate that the proceeds of this sale were used to keep the failing institution solvent.
“I went to the President of Georgetown and asked him to send me to Louisiana to visit these plantations and meet with descendants in order to write a musical work about this history.” Upon his return, Simon fashioned a score that drew upon two musical sources, Gregorian chant from the Roman Catholic tradition and spirituals from the African-American tradition. He collaborated with rapper Marco Pavé to act as the griot, the traditional story teller, to interpret the physical and spiritual journey of the Requiem, accompanied by a small chamber ensemble, piano and improvising trumpeter.
Carlos Simon’s ‘Requiem for the Enslaved’ will be presented at UC San Diego’s Mandeville Auditorium on November 9, 2023, at 7:30 p.m.
Carlos Simon’s ‘Wake Up: A Concerto for Orchestra’ will be played by the San Diego Symphony at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park on November 10, 2023, 7:30 p.m.