The poet William Congreve may have noted that music has charms to soothe the savage breast. Melvin Chen, director of the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, is hoping that music can also expand our cultural conversations and awareness. It’s one reason Chen is launching Musical Bridges, a new project aimed at using classical music, and chamber music in particular, to widen the classical music universe through commissioning new works. “Music is a living, breathing art form,” Chen says. “It’s not a museum where you just look at the objects of the past. Your responsibility is to add repertoire, music and ideas.
“Young people listen to all kinds of music. Today’s composers are omnivorous [in their musical tastes],” he continues. “We need to be in conversation with the other genres of music that exist in the world.”
And that conversation, he hopes, will be literal as audiences are exposed to new kinds of music and new ideas as well. “The second part of the project is not only to put chamber music in conversation with other genres around the world but to place classical music in a societal context as a way of thinking of what the role of classical music is in today’s society. How can it be relevant and comment upon the larger issues that are happening?”
The program’s kickoff this summer illustrates Chen’s vision for Musical Bridges. The inaugural concert on July 9 — the first in a series of virtual performances this season — will feature the world premiere of a chamber music work for quartet, two singers and piano by the Haitian American composer/violinist/educator Daniel Bernard Roumain, aka DBR. The piece, Twin Stars: 32 Diamond Variations for Dae’Anna, will focus on the fatal shooting of Philando Castile by a Minneapolis police officer during a traffic stop in 2016. The killing was videotaped by Castile’s partner, Diamond Reynolds, who was also in the car with their 4-year-old daughter, Dae’Anna, in the back seat.
“I want the audience to feel the precise horror of that moment but also understand the boundlessness of the love within that family, the love in that car, the love captured on that Facebook Live event,” DBR says of why he decided to focus on the Castile shooting. “These are two simultaneous acts captured in our nation’s history — acts of horror and acts of boundless empathy.”
Conceived in 2019, Musical Bridges was originally intended to start in 2020, but the pandemic prevented that. That hiatus, however, has only made DBR’s piece more relevant, Chen says. “I don’t think we’re prescient, but somehow the things we’re exploring in this project have become unbelievably relevant,” he says, noting that since the project’s conception George Floyd and other people of color have been killed by police. “When those things happened, this project took on a new urgency.”
Chen hopes the piece, and the Musical Bridges commissions to follow in subsequent seasons, will inspire people to potentially rethink their understanding of an event or a culture. To that end, the festival will include webinars and other activities as part of expanding the conversation beyond the work itself. Two webinars with DBR about the piece and classical music’s role in our collective conversation are already on the festival’s YouTube channel and more are planned.
“To listen to a work that’s been inspired by certain events and hear a musical response gives you a different feeling than hearing people talking about these events,” Chen says. “Hearing the music I hope will bring people together in a closer way from the shared experience of hearing the music.”
Norfolk Chamber Music Festival
July 9–Aug. 7
DBR’s piece premieres on July 9 at 7:30 p.m., followed by concerts every Friday and Saturday night starting at 7:30 through Aug. 7
Free but donations welcome
Streaming online at norfolkmusic.org, on YouTube and Facebook