Hear it at the Library: The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Performs a New Work Inspired by Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman”

The following guest post is by Anne McLean, Senior Producer for Concerts and Special Projects in the Library’s Music Division.

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

—excerpt from Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman”

Valerie Coleman

Maya Angelou admirers can enjoy hearing the superb Orpheus Chamber Orchestra perform a new composition inspired by her poem “Phenomenal Woman” here at the Library of Congress on Saturday, June 1, at 8 pm. The composer is Valerie Coleman, cited on The Washington Post’s list of “Top 35 Women Composers,” who will talk about Angelou’s influence on her work in a pre-concert conversation that evening.

Coleman is the founding flutist of the pacesetting Imani Winds woodwind quintet, which has been energizing and enriching the contemporary music scene for two decades. With impressive technical mastery and a cultural world-view encompassing classical, jazz and pop styles as well as African and Latin American music, the group has evolved a unique presence and vibe: “the sound of woodwinds calling for change.” (Vivien Schweitzer).

Coleman’s colorful compositions—like her Afro-Cuban Concerto, Umoja, and Tzigane—reflect her own strong interest in cultural and societal change. “The one thing that composers can do which makes us very dangerous is we record the times and create new histories, by basically interpreting what has happened onto the music, onto the page.” Her Phenomenal Women “is about celebrating women’s efforts to overcome adversity, no matter who and where you are,” Coleman states. The piece salutes powerful and empowering figures of tremendous spirit and grace: Maya Angelou, Serena Williams and Michelle Obama—and the women of the immigrant caravans journeying with their families to the American border.

Maya Angelou, 1994. Rosa Parks Papers. Prints and Photographs Division.

The work came to life as a concerto grosso for Imani Winds and the American Composers Orchestra, animated by “the spirit of [Angelou’s] poem—sassy, sensual and confident” (New York Times). A new, chamber-sized version, commissioned by the Library’s Dina Koston and Roger Shapiro Fund, is perfect for the intimate acoustics of the Coolidge Auditorium. Woodwind instruments are still a vibrant texture and tone for a musical experience that’s “meant to shout the tone of empowerment,” the composer says. “The piece is about phenomenal women who have changed the fabric of the way we look and how we perceive life.”

Coleman’s concept for the composition grew out of research she was doing into Maya Angelou’s writing. The lyrics of the poem that inspired her do not appear in the work; there is no vocal line in the score. But the poet is very much a presence. “The very first part is to Maya herself,” the composer says. “And it goes through her poems, from And Still I Rise, to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, to Phenomenal Woman… there’s a certain calypso feel to it; it’s sexy but at the same time it’s very bold.” A few subtle sound effects in each movement catch the ear, like a percussive “whack” evoking Serena Williams’ “personal bounce.” In “Caravana,” the movement dedicated to mothers of the caravans, a two-note figure suggests the Brahms Lullaby.

Phenomenal Women is about celebrating women’s efforts to overcome adversity, no matter who and where you are… the people I wrote about, each person had their own struggle with something external, but they handled it with grace. And they figured out a way through their own determination, to not only persevere through it, but thrive. And so that is the commonality that I hope the music imparts.”

You can hear Maya Angelou reading her poem “Phenomenal Woman” in this link from Time.com.

A recent recipient of the prestigious Herb Alpert/Ragdale Residency and Prize, Valerie Coleman is Assistant Professor of Performance, Chamber Music and Entrepreneurship at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. The June 1 Orpheus Chamber Orchestra concert wraps up the Music Division’s 2018-2019 season. For further information, please visit the Concerts from the Library of Congress website, www.loc.gov/concerts; tickets are required for the concert and patrons are encouraged to come early for RUSH tickets if the event is sold out. No tickets are required to attend the pre-concert talk at 6:30 pm.

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