At this year’s Grammy Awards, the best classical orchestral performance nominees included some of the usual suspects. There was the Berliner Philharmoniker with John Williams, the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel, and a collection of smaller ensembles that banded together to perform and record a new piece by acclaimed composer John Luther Adams. Then there was the outlier. The New York Youth Symphony, a tuition-free orchestra made up of musicians ages 12 to 22 under the direction of conductor Michael Repper, was nominated for an album of music by Black women composers, including Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja: Anthem of Unity.”
On Feb. 5, the day of the Grammys, Coleman was returning to her New York City home from Boston, where she had just completed a residency with the preparatory division of New England Conservatory. As soon as she arrived, she said in a recent phone interview, she rushed to the couch and sat down with her computer so she could watch the live stream of the daytime ceremony where most of the annual awards are handed out. When the category was called, she said, “it came quickly. I had to call the rest of my family into the room, like — guys, this is it!” Then the New York Youth Symphony’s album won in its category. “It was a surreal experience,” Coleman said. “I did not see that coming.”
Local listeners are also about to have two opportunities to hear “Umoja” live. On Feb. 19, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players will perform “Umoja” in its three-minute wind quintet arrangement during its concert at Jordan Hall. Then, on March 8, also at Jordan, the New England Conservatory Philharmonia will perform the 13-minute version of “Umoja” for orchestra that the New York Youth Symphony included on its Grammy-winning album.
The best classical orchestral performance Grammy goes only to the conductor and the orchestra, so Coleman, a flutist and composer who attended the Boston University Tanglewood Institute and later graduated from Boston University, doesn’t actually get a trophy. Nonetheless, “it was just a real treat and a real surprise,” she said.
Throughout its life, “Umoja”— the Swahili word for unity, and one of the seven guiding principles of Kwanzaa — has taken on many forms. Coleman wrote the original version for women’s chorus in the mid-1990s as a graduate student at the New School in New York, where she now teaches. Not long afterward, she rearranged it for the first-ever gig (a wedding) of Imani Winds, a wind quintet she founded and performed with for several years.
“The bassoonist, Monica Ellis, who’s still in the group — she was like, ‘You know what, Valerie, I think this piece really works!’” Coleman said, and burst out laughing. “Which told me that she didn’t believe that it worked in rehearsal.”
In the years since, Coleman has created versions of “Umoja” for small ensembles including flute choir, brass quintet, and string quartet. The orchestral version came about when the Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned her to expand the piece. When that premiered in 2019, it was the first work by a living Black female composer the orchestra had ever performed.
“It’s a classic earworm. You hear it once and you can’t get it out of your head,” said New England Conservatory associate director of orchestras David Loebel, who selected “Umoja” for the NEC Philharmonia’s March 8 program. “There’s a rhythmic propulsion to [Umoja] that’s intoxicating, but in the opening section there’s a really beautiful sense of calm.”
Coleman compared the piece to “this spirit that has taken on different incarnations” through time. “I like to think that from a creative standpoint, when a new work is brought into the world, it has its own life and it grows. With each interpretation that musicians bring, it becomes imbued with personalities and traits and memories,” she said.
While the New York Youth Symphony was working on its Grammy-winning album, Coleman described her role as “sitting on the sidelines and cheering people on.” She had previously met some of the young musicians in the orchestra through her teaching both in New York and at BUTI, where she now advises a composition workshop and directs a woodwind quintet workshop. She’s especially interested in giving high schoolers “who have the creative bug” opportunities to study composition, since she wasn’t offered those until college.
“I am grateful for my experiences … but I cannot help but to think, man, it would have been amazing to be 14 and have some kind of compositional instruction,” she said, noting that she’d “love to entertain the idea” of mentoring young composers in partnership with a symphony orchestra.
Coleman credits her own teacher at BUTI, then-principal Boston Symphony Orchestra flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer, with setting her on the path to seriously pursuing composition. “She was just somebody who was in my corner,” Coleman said of Dwyer, the first woman to hold a principal position with the BSO, who died in 2020 at age 98.
“We did masterclasses, and I had this trio work, and I didn’t think that anybody would like it, but I stood up there with my two friends and we played it together. Doriot immediately started to dive into it as if it were Beethoven or Mozart, really going into the interpretation of the work. It was the kind of validation I never thought I would get with my writing,” Coleman said, choking up a bit. “She was the very first person to really make me feel like my writing mattered. I’ll never forget it.”
BOSTON SYMPHONY CHAMBER PLAYERS
Program to include Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja” for wind quintet. Feb. 19, 3 p.m. Jordan Hall. 617-266-1200, www.bso.org
Program to include Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja: Anthem of Unity” for orchestra. March 8, 7:30 p.m. Jordan Hall. www.necmusic.edu
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.