Left without a vaccine to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic, it appears the orchestra fall season will not be able to proceed with audiences normally. There is no way to practice social distancing in a concert hall, nor would it be wise to risk gathering that many people together in one place. Here in Michigan, our Detroit Symphony Orchestra is perhaps better equipped to make a switch to on-line virtual performances than most. The technology has been in place for a few years, as the DSO has been broadcasting live Webcasts from select concerts for several seasons. The investments made to reach audiences through the internet are going to pay off this season in ways not previously imagined.
The music will continue this fall of 2020 with the DSO Digital Concerts series, making live concerts available on your mobile device, computer, or Smart TV. These concerts will also be available on demand for subscribers to watch on-demand for two weeks following the original concert date. Earlier this year, when Executive Orders, restrictions and common sense caused a stop to live performances for the DSO, the orchestra made its library of performances available on DSO Replay available for free. One of the absolute treasures available is a world premiere of a piece entitled Black Bottom by composer Nkeiru Okoye.
Detroit was originally founded by French colonial settlers on the banks of the Detroit river. The area of river bottomlands that had such dark, rich fertile topsoil was named the Black Bottom by these French settlers from the 18th century. This name carried on to the neighborhood which arose as the city grew. Around World War I this area was populated with mainly Eastern European Jewish immigrants. From the 1930’s through the 1950’s, it became an area populated with African Americans many of which had moved from the American south in search of jobs in the auto industry. Along with the adjoining neighborhood named Paradise Valley, this was a center of businesses and homes owned by African Americans as well as jazz clubs, blues clubs and other night spots. Detroit Symphony Orchestra hall is very near where this area is in Detroit, and in one point in its history was named Paradise Theater and hosted jazz performers from around the country.
In the late 1950’s, plans were made to build an interstate freeway right in the area of the Paradise Valley and Black Bottom neighborhoods. The residents and businesses were displaced in the name of urban renewal, land was claimed by eminent domain for public use, and buildings were razed and bulldozed well into the 1960’s. The best visual record of these neighborhoods are a comprehensive set of photos taken in 1949 and 1950, ironically taken by the City of Detroit government in preparation for their eminent domain legal case. The photos were never intended for public view at the time, but the collection was discovered in 2008 and eventually displayed in the Detroit Public library in an exhibit titled Black Bottom Street View.
Nkeiru Okoye (born 1972) is a composer that often writes works based on American history. She visited the exhibition of photos at the Detroit Public Library and composed her nine movement piece Black Bottom to focus on the wealth of what was lost when the neighborhood was destroyed. The world premiere happened at Orchestra Hall in Detroit, very close to where the Black Bottom neighborhood originally stood. I found it to be a rich work, each of its nine episodes pulling unique sounds out of the orchestra. These sounds could only come from an America that has benefited from the cultural contributions of the African American community.
The world premiere of Black Bottom by Nkeiru Okoye took place on March 7, 2020 with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Wilkins. It featured Sumayya AIi, soprano; Charlotte Small-Chestnut, mezzo-soprano; Vincent Davis, tenor; and
Markel Reed, baritone.