This summer, Berklee College of Music graduate Damali Willingham is one of 10 fellows at the Aspen Conducting Academy in Colorado, an eight-week intensive program for young conductors attached to the prestigious Aspen Music Festival. However, at the end of July — halfway through the eight-week program — Willingham will be hopping on a plane to Logan Airport and coming back to town to conduct a handful of pieces in Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s July 26 concert, “Seen-Unseen: The Symphonic Legacy of Black American Women.”
The concert, at the DCR Hatch Memorial Shell on the Esplanade, was co-curated by the acclaimed Medford-born jazz drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. Coincidentally, it’s also on the first day of the NAACP’s 2023 national conference at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in the Seaport.
That means Willingham will be doing double duty for a few weeks, learning scores by Florence Price, Jessie Montgomery, and Mary Lou Williams in addition to the pile of repertoire they’re studying at Aspen. But it’s completely worth it, said the conductor, who worked as an educator with the orchestra last summer in the “Maestro Zone” near the Hatch Shell stage, where they guided audience members through the fundamentals of conducting during concerts.
“Being on a program and being able to conduct the music solely of Black women is not the typical experience that I get studying as a conductor,” they said. “Don’t get me wrong, I love studying Beethoven and Mozart and Mahler. But it’s different when the music feels like it’s talking directly to you versus you having to find your way into it.”
Carrington, who founded the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice in 2018, was awarded her third Grammy Award earlier this year for her recent album “New Standards Vol. 1,” the first in a planned series of recordings featuring jazz compositions by women. Last year, she published a book of 101 lead sheets by women jazz composers, including esperanza spalding, Alice Coltrane, Geri Allen, and many others.
“I realized that our students weren’t able to choose very much in the way of repertoire by women composers, so did my best to address that with this book of lead sheets,” said Carrington over Zoom from the Netherlands, where she was performing with her New Standards ensemble. “Within classical and jazz, we’re definitely in the minority.”
The Landmarks program takes its name from Carrington’s own suite “Seen/Unseen,” which she described as a reference to the invisible labor and stereotypes she feels many Black women face. “You can be seen as hyper-sexual, or as angry, and much of your humanity remains unseen,” she said.
“Seen/Unseen” was originally commissioned by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the orchestral version Landmarks will play was arranged by Edmar Colón, a longtime collaborator of Carrington’s. Carrington is also planning to perform alongside the orchestra during Williams’s “Zodiac Suite” and Nkeiru Okoye’s “Voices Shouting Out” in addition to playing in her own piece.
For Okoye’s piece, “the percussion part is traditionally played by three classical players in the section, but Nkeiru told me she actually originally conceived it on drum set,” Landmarks music director Christopher Wilkins explained in a phone interview. “We’re just stepping into each other’s worlds in different sorts of ways, and seeing what comes out of it.”
Whether in jazz or classical, not performing the music of women composers leads to a “sort of death spiral,” said Wilkins. “Black American women have been composing all this music for orchestra for so long, and hardly any of us know it. It’s all been in the shadows,” he said. “It needs to be published and recorded. Try to find recordings of music by Julia Perry, or by Undine Smith Moore, or until recently, Florence Price — they don’t exist.” Without those recordings, he said, those composers don’t have a fair chance to be heard or performed.
When Wilkins asked Willingham if they wanted to conduct part of the concert, they jumped at the chance. “I was like, I am absolutely there. Let me see if I can get leave from Aspen,” they said.
They were enthusiastic because of the repertoire, but also because of their experience working with the orchestra last summer, which they called one of the best jobs they’ve ever had.
“Landmarks is a really special organization in the way they approach music making,” Willingham said. “The way I came up in this world, orchestral music wasn’t something I would have naturally gravitated towards if it wasn’t presented to me. A lot of people don’t necessarily have the access. So having a concert in a space where anybody in the city can come and enjoy it is a really big motivator for me wanting to work with Landmarks specifically.”
BOSTON LANDMARKS ORCHESTRA
DCR Hatch Memorial Shell, Charles River Esplanade. July 26, 7 p.m. www.landmarksorchestra.org