World Premiere of Shawn Okpebholo's Orchestral Two Black Churches

World Premiere of Shawn Okpebholo's Orchestral Two Black Churches
Shawn E. Okpebholo
© Greg Halvorsen Scheck

On May 18, Lexington Philharmonic presents the World Premiere of Two Black Churches (for baritone soloist and orchestra) by composer Shawn E. Okpebholo. Originally composed as a song cycle for baritone and piano, this new orchestration debuts with acclaimed soloist Will Liverman, under conductor Mélisse Brunet. 

The work is a musical reflection of two significant and tragic events in two black churches, each perpetrated at the hands of white supremacists: the racist attacks on the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, and the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015.

The text of the first movement is Ballad of Birmingham, a poem by Dudley Randall. It is a narrative account of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing from the perspectives of the mother of one victim and her child. Stylistically, this movement includes 1960s black gospel juxtaposed with contemporary art song. At moments, the civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome and the hymn Amazing Grace are also heard. While there are strophic elements consistent with the structure of the poem, the work is also rhapsodic, though serious and weighty in nature.

The text of the second movement is called The Rain; it is a poem written especially for this composition by Marcus Amaker, poet laureate of Charleston, South Carolina. This poem poignantly reflects the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church. Set in the coastal city of Charleston, which often floods, The Rain is a beautifully haunting metaphor on racism and the inability of blacks in America to stay above water—a consequence of the flood of injustice and the weight of oppression.

The number nine is significant in Two Black Churches, symbolizing the nine people who perished that day in Charleston. Musically, this is most evident through meter and a recurring nine-chord harmonic progression. The hymn, ‘Tis so Sweet to Trust in Jesus, is quoted in this movement. This hymn was sung at the first service in the church after the shooting, testifying to a community that chose faith and hope over hate and fear.


Two Black Churches (for baritone and orchestra) was co-commissioned by The Lexington Philharmonic, Mélisse Brunet, Music Director, and supported by the Saykaly Garbulinska Composer-in-Residence Program. It was also composed for the Oakland Symphony, Kedrick Armstrong, Music Director, in honor of Michael Morgan, Music Director Laureate. This was made possible through an initiative led by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the San Francisco Symphony aimed at commissioning Black American composers, and the generous support of Laurence and Michèle Corash. With Two Black Churches, Okpebholo expands his growing catalog of orchestral music, which also includes Zoom! and Kutimbua Kivumbi (Stomp the Dust).


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