The National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorale, in partnership with The Washington Chorus, will present the world premiere of composer Adolphus Hailstork and librettist Herbert Martin’s Requiem Cantata in memory of George Floyd: “America’s Requiem – A Knee on The Neck” on March 26 and March 28 in Bethesda, MD.
“America’s Requiem — “A Knee on The Neck” is a tribute to George Floyd, whose brutal murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020 was caught on video, igniting a global movement for racial justice and police reform. The NSO event marks almost two years since Floyd’s untimely death with these two poignant works that organizers say “create space for remembrance and reflection.” The work will debut alongside Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem.
“We are tremendously grateful and so humbled to have the opportunity to present the world premiere of A Knee on The Neck as part of this program,” says National Philharmonic Music Director Piotr Gajewski. “It’s an important moment in time to share such a relevant piece of music. While society’s struggle continues today, we hope our audience can engage with this work, learn from it, and carry hope and something positive as they leave the hall.”
Composer Adolphus Hailstork and librettist and poet Herbert Martin, as many others around the world, were moved by Mr. Floyd’s murder. But in their grief the duo came together to create an artistic response that commemorates Floyd’s life and tragic loss. The result is a powerful piece of music that speaks to the challenges which Black Americans have endured, engages listeners to share in that painful journey, and recognizes Mr. Floyd’s indelible legacy.
Martin developed the poetry within one week of George Floyd’s murder, then invited Hailstork to create the musical setting. Hailstork looked to one of his previous compositions for inspiration (Hercules, 2014).
In the 18 months since the genesis of Hailstork and Martin’s collaboration, A Knee on The Neck evolved into a massive choral-orchestral piece wherein the music is deeply informed by the text and filled with imagery and metaphors. It alludes to the turbulent Minneapolis cityscape with its raucous opening sequence; to Mr. Floyd’s heritage by incorporating African drumming and African American spirituals; to Mr. Floyd’s final words with cascading vocal passages; to the absolute stillness of death in a crucial moment of cesura; and to society’s hope for peace with a closing hymn. The music and text also reference similar moments in history where Black Americans, such as Emmett Till and Breonna Taylor, were the victims of unjustifiable violence due to racism and discrimination.
Hailstork explains that one of his goals as a Black American composer has been to contribute to the discourse through his art.
“What can an artist do? I can speak on the issues and put them in my work. These are the tragedies and triumphs of a people who have been beaten up for 400 years. Does anyone speak for them? Who writes pieces that speak for the existence of African Americans in the United States? I’ll take on that job,” Hailstork says.
Scored for orchestra, a large chorus, and three soloists, A Knee on The Neck is made possible through a collaborative effort between three D.C.-area institutions: the National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorale, The Washington Chorus, and The Howard University Chorale. These ensembles are joined onstage by mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, tenor Norman Shankle, and baritone Kenneth Overton.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor comprises the other half of the program. Commissioned in 1791, it is widely speculated that Mozart was writing the work with the intent of having it played at his own funeral. While the piece was left unfinished at the time of his death, Mozart’s student Franz Xaver Süssmayr completed it a year later in 1792.
Written as “a mass for the dead,” Mozart’s Requiem complements this musical tribute to George Floyd, “offering repose for his soul and the souls of those who have been lost to senseless acts of violence.” The work will being performed by the above-mentioned ensembles and vocalists, with the addition of soprano Janai Brugger.
“What an honor it is to work with these historic organizations on two critically important works. For me, the pairing of Hailstork and Martin’s A Knee on The Neck with Mozart’s Requiem offers us the opportunity to honor those we have lost, to reflect upon the legacies they leave behind, and to re-examine our own life’s journey moving forward. Preparing these two works has been a transformative experience for the singers, and we are eager to share them with the community,” says Artistic Director of The Washington Chorus Dr. Eugene Rogers, who is Chorus Master for the program.
Tickets ($45–$99) are available online at nationalphilharmonic.org for the concert at Strathmore and capitalonehall.com for the concert at Capital One Hall. Kids 17 and under can attend National Philharmonic performances for free through the All Kids. All Free. All the Time. initiative.
About Herbert Martin (Librettist)
Herbert Woodward Martin, born in 1933, served as professor of English and poet-in-residence at the University of Dayton for more than three decades where he taught creative writing and African American literature. He has devoted decades to editing and giving performances of the works of the poet and novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906). He is also the editor of four books as well as the author of nine volumes of poetry.
About Adolphus Hailstork (Composer)
Adolphus Hailstork, born in 1941, received his doctorate in composition from Michigan State University, where he was a student of H. Owen Reed. He had previously studied at the Manhattan School of Music, under Vittorio Giannini and David Diamond; at the American Institute at Fontainebleau with Nadia Boulanger; and at Howard University with Mark Fax.
Dr. Hailstork has written numerous works for chorus, solo voice, piano, organ, various chamber ensembles, band, and orchestra. Recent commissions include Rise For Freedom, an opera about the Underground Railroad, premiered in the fall of 2007 by the Cincinnati Opera Company; Set Me On A Rock (re: Hurricane Katrina), for chorus and orchestra, commissioned by the Houston Choral Society (2008); and the choral ballet, The Gift Of The Magi, for treble chorus and orchestra (2009). In the fall of 2011, Zora, We’re Calling You, a work for speaker and orchestra was premiered by the Orlando Symphony. I Speak Of Peace, commissioned by the Bismarck Symphony (Beverly Everett, conductor) in honor of (and featuring the words of) President John F. Kennedy was premiered in November of 2013.
Dr. Hailstork’s newest works include The World Called (based on Rita Dove’s poem “Testimonial”), a work for soprano, chorus, and orchestra commissioned by the Oratorio Society of Virginia (premiered in May 2018); and Still Holding On (February 2019), an orchestra work commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He is currently working on his Fourth Symphony, and A Knee on The Neck (tribute to George Floyd) for chorus and orchestra.
Dr. Hailstork is a retired professor and a much-commissioned composer. He and his wife Jin reside in Virginia Beach. VA.
About the Soloists
About the National Philharmonic
Celebrated for showcasing world-renowned guest artists in time-honored symphonic masterpieces, National Philharmonic continuously strives to create remarkable educational opportunities in the community while promoting diversity and representation in classical music.
National Philharmonic is an accessible, enriching component in the Greater Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area, believing that music has the power to spark imagination and shape the world around us. As the only organization with a united orchestra and chorus in the region, over the years National Philharmonic has expanded its footprint beyond its home at Strathmore, with year-round masterclasses along with Summer String and Summer Chorale Institutes for youth, armed services programs, and partnerships with community organizations. In addition to these programs, National Philharmonic fosters a love of music in young people across the region by offering free admission to all children between the ages 7 to 17 years old.
About The Washington Chorus
A three-time nominated and two-time Grammy Award winner, the 160-voice Washington Chorus presents an annual subscription series at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, regularly performs at the invitation of the National Symphony Orchestra, and appears annually at the Music Center at Strathmore in Maryland and Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia.
TWC was the first major Washington area chorus to be founded independent of a church or college. In 1961 Hugh Hayward, a medical doctor and classically trained musician, founded the Oratorio Society of Montgomery County, which became known as the Oratorio Society of Washington, and is now celebrated under the name of The Washington Chorus. In 1971, Robert Shafer succeeded Hayward as music director, leading the chorus for more than three decades with great distinction, including two Grammy Awards. From 2008–2017 Julian Wachner led the organization with education and innovation at the forefront of his programs. Christopher Bell brought unparalleled attention to precision and clarity to the ensemble with his trademark flair during his tenure as Artistic Director from 2017 to 2020. The Chorus’ fifth Artistic Director Eugene Rogers is widely regarded as one of the most acclaimed next-generation conductors and musical thought leaders today working at the intersection of classical music and social change.