September 7, 2011

Atlanta Music Festival Sept. 21-24 to feature opera singer Indra Thomas

The festival will feature performances by international opera star and Atlanta native Indra Thomas.

Emory joins Atlanta's First Congregational Church and Meridian Herald to present the 2011 Atlanta Music Festival: Songs of Aspiration, Hope and Progress Sept. 21-24. The festival will feature performances by international opera star and Atlanta native Indra Thomas and a dramatic re-creation of the inaugural performance of James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

The Atlanta Music Festival (AMF) has significant historical roots in its namesake city as part of an effort by First Congregational Church a century ago to unite all Atlantans through music with what was then known as the "Atlanta Colored Music Festival." The 2011 AMF, in official collaboration with Emory for the first time, will resume the national platform of the original music festivals begun in the wake of the 1906 Atlanta race riots.

"This year's AMF is a wonderful opportunity to reconnect an important musical expression with its original meaning and context," says Emory music professor and AMF artistic Director Dwight Andrews, who also is pastor of First Congregational Church.

In addition to music workshops with students and other performances, highlights of this year's festival include a concert featuring soprano Indra Thomas on Sept. 24.  Joining Thomas will be former Atlanta mayor, ambassador and 2011 AMF Honorary Chairperson Andrew Young as narrator, the Chancel Choir of First Congregational Church, the Morehouse College Glee Club and the Meridian Chorale.

On Sept. 23, 500 Atlanta area school children will join Thomas to re-create the dramatic premiere of "Lift Every Voice and Sing, " famous as the black national hymn written in 1900 by James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson. (Listen to an audio recording of "Lift Every Voice and Sing.") The event at Atlanta Symphony Hall will be hosted by Rudolph P. Byrd, director of Emory's James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference. 

Roots in Atlanta's civil rights history

In the wake of Atlanta's race riots in 1906, First Congregational Church instituted programs to improve the prospects of black communities and to encourage racial harmony.

In 1910, members of the congregation were denied admittance to Metropolitan Opera performances in Atlanta.  Their response was the creation of the "Atlanta Colored Music Festival" to celebrate African American music and to invite the white community to experience the high cultural attainments of African Americans.  The festival featured the most prominent African American concert artists of the day.

"The festival is a magnificent story of racial progress that came out of a dark moment more than a century ago," says Andrews. "Members of the congregation didn't stop with being rejected and turned the situation into an invitation for all to hear African American music. The concert was one of those bright spots at a dark time when Atlanta was still faced with division, hatred and violence in the wake of the race riots."

Andrews revived his congregation's music festival tradition 10 years ago through collaborations with Meridian Herald, a nonprofit supporting the Meridian Chorale led by AMF Music Director Steven Darsey, music director for Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church on the Emory campus.  Through their work with the AMF, they have sought to preserve and celebrate African American concert music and to increase understanding among races and faiths through the power of music.

"Magnificent music with particular ties to Atlanta's civil rights history are what drew me to the Atlanta Music Festival several years ago. We are delighted Emory has partnered with Meridian Herald and First Congregational Church to increase the national stature of this unique event, and, most importantly, the involvement of the entire Atlanta community, " says Jane Thorpe, chair of the steering committee of the Atlanta Music Festival and chair of the Meridian Herald board.

Although Emory College was still in Oxford when the first "Atlanta Colored Music Festival" was launched in 1910, that festival and the current one "resonate with Emory's aim to engage fully with our larger community," says Gary Hauk, vice president and deputy to the president. "Our partnership with Meridian Herald and First Congregational Church in Emory's 175th anniversary year also underscores Emory's long commitment to the humane and reconciling power of history, of literature and of music."

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