Evan Flory-Barnes stands six foot three, in suit and tie, in front of a thirty five member chamber orchestra at Seattle’s Town Hall. He scans the musicians. Left. Right. He rubs his palms together. No baton. He smiles broadly and adjusts his jacket. He glances down at the score. His head tips back. His eyes close. He whispers in a slow tempo, “One, two, three, four...” as he conducts with both hands, fingers gently closed. The count off is more like a jazz ensemble leader starting a familiar ballad than a conductor launching a symphony debut.
Violas and cellos sway back and forth in unison between two notes. A celeste chimes like an old fashioned clock. Glissandos rise from a harp. Dense chords drift in from wind instruments. An oboe moans. French horns herald an opening melody. Acknowledgement of a Celebration, a ten movement, fifty five minute opus commissioned by Meet the Composer, rises into the air.
So begins the initial scene from a video recording of the 2009 premier of Celebration. Copies of this DVD and audio CDs will be available at this year’s Earshot Jazz Festival performance of the piece.
The commission for Celebration requires four public performances. It premiered November 8, 2009 at Town Hall and was restaged May 2, 2010 at Benaroya Hall. Flory-Barnes’s alma mater, Garfield High School, is being considered for the final, yet to be scheduled Meet the Composer performance.
If you missed past performances of Celebration, grab this opportunity to experience it live in the most intimate venue to date. Only thirteen rows of seats separate the back wall from the stage at the Kirkland Performance Center. The seating slopes to the stage so audience members can watch all the activities on stage.
This staging will feature lighting design unavailable in previous venues and additional rehearsal time to enhance musical subtleties. Additionally, this concert will draw on a wider repertoire and include Flory-Barnes performing new compositions on bass.
But there’s more than music in this performance. With roots in the hip hop band Maroon Colony, Garfield Orchestra, and University of Washington jazz program, Celebration combines rhythmic loops, orchestral instrumentation, and melodic improvisation to propel a group of male break dancers and female modern dancers in spontaneous choreography.
In the second movement, dancers lie on the ground while an oboe and cello solo over a slow drum pulse and bowed chords. One by one, feet and legs rise, twist slow motion in the air, bodies upended on heads and hands. Another movement matches a break dancer with a modern dancer in a contact version of Brazilian capoeira. Yet another section has side by side break dancers hypnotically stepping in unison then breaking into solos.
The scale of this work transcends the leadership of a single artist. While Flory-Barnes cultivates a growing reputation as composer, collaborator, and catalyst, violist Brianna Atwell handles personnel and logistics for Celebration. Dancer Emma Klein organizes the gravity defying sliding, tumbling, and spinning performers. Ryan Price leads the technical direction for the Kirkland performance space.
This group of four artists convened on the Kirkland stage in mid September to work out the exact number of musicians and dancers that would fit in the available space. They walked around, imagining the placement of various instruments – basses near cellos, drums at the back on a riser, maybe tympani? They huddled around a portable DVD player to watch the recording of the premier and discuss lighting design. There is lots of work to do in the next month. The final touches will be tweaked at the dress rehearsal on the day of the concert.
The full title of the piece is Acknowledgment of a Celebration: Inheritance, Authenticity, and Healing. Flory-Barnes explains the autobiographic title as the inner process to open one’s heart to life, family, and self. This enables a compassionate, loving response to negativity. “My mother provided lessons of unconditional love and my father provided a way to practice those lessons.” Flory-Barnes father, a Vietnam veteran, struggled with substance abuse and died when his son was sixteen. “There were times I wanted to remove ‘Barnes’ from my last name.”
Hints of the narrative arc in Celebration can be traced by the movement titles – Please Know This, A Boy’s Dream A Man’s Majesty, Dance of the Girl Obscured, The End of Old Days, Letting Go of What Isn’t Yours to Begin With, Marching Towards the Now, An Alarm Call to Presence, A Hero Driven by His Tears, Requiem for a Love Misunderstood, Return to a Home Unseen.
Chances to hear Flory-Barnes in the Pacific Northwest are becoming more precious as his career begins to take flight. Frequently on the road with chanteuse Meklit Hadero, recent tours took him from Bumbershoot all the way to Kenya and Ethiopia. “Meklit’s music is deep and simple. We can stretch it and grow. She’s like Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, and Nora Jones – a modern song writer through an Ethiopian filter.” Deep throated, dark, and musky vocals croon of flirty love and loss to catchy grooves.
Flory-Barnes’s next project is to record musical portraits of women in his life. Based on relationships spanning the intimately personal to distantly iconic, he will animate his muse with female energy. Puns on women’s names will form titles so each subject will recognize their portrait. If we are lucky, some of this material may be included in the Kirkland performance.