When New England Conservatory’s Black Student Union honors alumna Coretta Scott King with a concert Feb. 25, they’ll also be remembering “all the people we lost this year,” says Zoe Cagan, a classical flutist and chair of the BSU.
“A lot of the people who are affected the most [by the COVID pandemic] are Black and brown people, essential workers who have to go out there,” notes Cagan, 23, who is pursuing her master’s degree. “Then George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, all the other names from this year that weren’t as big as them but still we lost along the way. And then on top of that, this year was a year that we lost a lot of Black legends and figures like Kobe Bryant, Chadwick Boseman, Cicely Tyson, John Lewis, all of them. So this was like a really hard year for a lot of Black Americans.”
This is the fourth year that NEC has honored King, a 1954 graduate of the school who met her husband, Martin Luther King Jr., while studying in Boston. The hourlong event, “Continuation of a Dream: Requiem,” will be pre-recorded and streamed on Feb. 25.
“For the main concert we really wanted to feature our Black student body and Black alums,” Cagan says.
That includes Cagan and Black Student Union marketing and media chair Lemuel Marc, a 19-year-old freshman trumpeter from Milton who joined her for a recent Zoom interview to preview the event.
Cagan decided to perform a solo piece for flute, and zeroed in on a work by a composer from her home state of Texas.
“I knew about Allison Loggins-Hull because she’s also a Black flutist, and I wanted to play something by her,” says Cagan. “I found ‘Homeland’ and thought it was so beautiful, and I listened to her speak on YouTube about it, and I just thought it was perfect.”
“Homeland” was written pre-pandemic, but remains relevant.
“She wrote it in 2018 in response to the events around us at the time — there was a hurricane in Puerto Rico, we were in the midst of all the political things happening here in America,” Cagan explains. “The piece basically has elements of anguish and hope and sorrow and nostalgia throughout it, and I just thought it was really appropriate to play because it deals with loss, but also maybe a better hope for tomorrow.”
Marc’s selection reached back to the 1950s, to Governor Orval Faubus ordering the Arkansas National Guard to prevent Black students from enrolling in Little Rock’s all-white Central High School in 1957, an outrage immortalized by the Charles Mingus composition “Fables of Faubus” on his classic 1959 album “Ah Um.”
“Charles Mingus is probably just my all-time favorite musician of any genre,” Marc explains. “I started playing jazz officially freshman year of high school, and in our big band we played ‘Fables of Faubus,’ and it just touched me in a way other songs I’ve heard never touched me before. And I kind of just dove really deep into Mingus.”
Marc arranged Mingus’s piece for a septet that included vocalist and Black Student Union board member Naledi Masilo, who will also be featured singing the protest song “Thina Sizwe” from her native South Africa.
“I took a lot of inspiration from multiple recordings of ‘Fables of Faubus,’” says Marc, “because there’s at least eight different live versions, all super long, and what Mingus will do usually is they’ll play the melody, and the instrumentalists will take a chorus or two and they’ll kind of descend into madness. There will be a cadenza, free instrumentalists, and it’s like a very free solo in a way. But what I did felt slightly different. When we went into the free section, I had a poem being read by Naledi Masilo, a poem [written] by Camonghne Felix entitled ‘For Breonna.’”
“The poem was kind of like the anger that a lot of people felt when Breonna Taylor died. But also the hope. The blues section was really just mourning the lives that were lost over the pandemic, and we go back to the melody and the last note is kind of like the high note — the hope.”
Encouraging the students to make music relevant to themselves and the year we’ve just lived through were faculty advisers Nedelka Prescod and Jason Moran, the pianist and composer who also serves as artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center.
“My role is to make sure the students feel like they are being heard by the NEC community,” Moran says in an e-mail. “The students have been vocal about what they feel is missing in the conservatory, and meanwhile the students dig into the work they are triggered by and it may well define the rest of their careers. When I was a student at Manhattan School of Music, the Pan-African Student Union was the place where we read books together, had potlucks, and made each other learn spirituals as well as compose for one another. My relationships in that organization fuel me to this day, and I feel it is important for these students dive into the history to witness the futures.”
“Sometimes it feels like programming for Black History Month is like tokenized programming, where it’s like, ‘Let’s just play this because it’s Black’ and ‘Let’s get all the Black students,’” says Cagan. “But the fact that this is something we created ourselves meant that we could do things that we wanted to, things that were meaningful to us. And when it’s something that’s coming from us, from our own heads and our own hearts, I think that’s what makes a difference. That’s what makes this concert different from other concerts that other institutions might just put together.”
CONTINUATION OF A DREAM: REQUIEM
Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. Free. Details and links to related performances at necmusic.edu/black-history-month and necmusic.edu/events/coretta-scott-king-tribute-concert-continuation-dream-requiem