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Singer wants to ‘un-whitewash’ classical music history with free Boston concerts

Reggie Mobley curates the Handel and Haydn Society’s free Every Voice series.Liz Linder

Countertenor Reggie Mobley wasn’t a psychology major for long before switching to music. However, one thing that stayed with him from those early courses is the concept of gestalt, he says: the idea that a whole is more than its individual parts.

“There are so many interesting people in Boston, but there never seemed to be a strong sense of unity between certain parts of the community,” the Jamaica Plain-based singer observed over the phone from San Francisco, where he recently sang with the Philharmonia Baroque. “A community in itself, much like an orchestra, or a choir . . . those are examples of a gestalt. Their bodies truly are greater than the sum of their parts.”


It’s with this principle in mind that Mobley curates and directs Every Voice, the Handel and Haydn Society’s annual free concert series, which offers two performances this weekend in partnership with the faith-based nonprofit Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry and Union United Methodist Church. “I thought, perhaps, a greater way to appreciate and strengthen the whole is if we really understood the parts themselves,” Mobley said.

Now a few years old, Every Voice has found its rhythm. “The [Every Voice] project, in a way, seeks to kind of un-straightwash and un-whitewash music history, especially in the classical sphere,” said Mobley, a native of Florida for whom activism and music frequently mix. (His Twitter bio still proudly displays the hashtag #tenpeopleontwitter, referencing his work with the opposition to the defunct 2024 Boston Olympics bid.) Each concert focuses on a few groups within the community; this year, music by black and Jewish composers will be performed by members of the H&H Orchestra and Chorus and a youth chorus from the H&H Vocal Arts Program.

Mobley explained that the program’s layout, with a section of Jewish music between two blocks of black music, is a tribute to the African Meeting House building on Beacon Hill, which was first a black church and then a synagogue before becoming the Museum of African American History. But more than that, Mobley said, he wants to celebrate the connections between the groups.


“Things still aren’t great. . .There are still synagogues being burned through the world. There are still black people being shot and murdered in the streets,” said Mobley, who will sing the countertenor solo in H+H performances of “Messiah” later this month. “The point of these concerts is to show that we have always been here. There is a resilience here, in these communities, that shows that not only are we strong enough to survive these things. . . [we] still create and still love and still show joy as passionately as we do.”

In a phone interview, UU Urban Ministry executive director the Rev. Mary Margaret Earl said she was absolutely floored by the first H+H concert Mobley directed at First Church in Roxbury, 2016’s “Requiem for Division,” and classical music isn’t typically her thing.

“The concert, especially as Reggie creates it and shapes it as a social justice concert, is very much true to who we are,” she said. “We understand that learning about history is important in making change in the future.”

One might call many of the composers on this year’s Every Voice concert unsung, at least in the present day. They include Ignatius Sancho, a black man who was born into slavery and then advocated for abolition as an adult in England; Salamone Rossi, an Italian Jewish composer of the early Baroque period who composed choral pieces on Hebrew texts; Harry T. Burleigh, whose arrangements of spirituals were enormously popular in the early 20th century; and Yiddish art song pioneer Lazar Weiner.


Mobley, who is not Jewish, said it was crucial for him to collaborate with Jewish musicians such as bass-baritone Ian Pomerantz to create the concert. “I refuse to do this project if it is only from my perspective,” Mobley said.

When Pomerantz isn’t singing Baroque music, he works with Sephardic Jewish communities to preserve and transmit their musical traditions. Accordingly, he tried to program the concert’s Jewish music to showcase a wide swath of the diaspora.

“H&H during the nineteenth century had a very socially progressive mission. . . part of what we’re trying to do is reclaim that heritage," Pomerantz, who makes his H&H debut with these concerts, said via phone. "In early music in Boston in particular, non-Christian musicians and composers have gotten short shrift, and people of color have [also] not been represented as often as they should be, so this is a step in the right direction.”

For Mobley, “Nigra sum sed formosa,” by Jonathan Woody, is “the most important piece of the program,” because it confronts racism in classical music itself. In this Renaissance-style motet, subtitled a “fantasia on microaggressions,” words from the Song of Songs (“I am black, but beautiful”) are juxtaposed with comments such as “You are so exotic, I bet you sing spirituals very well . . . You should play in the NFL,” which Mobley sourced by asking fellow performers of color about their experiences at gigs. “We’re made to feel less because of things because of this,” he said.


With that, he hopes that H&H won’t stop at the Every Voice series, but will be more inclusive in its repertoire for its main stage concerts. Why can’t an orchestra play something by Chevalier de Saint-Georges or Sancho alongside a Mozart or Haydn symphony, he asked, instead of finding some “little classical gem” by another white European?

“This isn’t just a Boston issue,” Mobley said. ”A lot of American ensembles are typically led and guested by British and European conductors who don’t quite have the same kind of understanding and social awareness of this fight for diversity and inclusion as we do in the States. So I think it’s on us as audience members and community members to say that this is something that needs to be done.”


Presented by the Handel and Haydn Society in partnership with Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry and Union United Methodist Church. Nov. 2, First Church in Roxbury. Nov. 3, Union United Methodist Church. 617-266-3605, www.handelandhaydn.org

Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.


A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her @knitandlisten.