Poster Eugene Concert Choir and Orchestra 2
On the latest episode of New Classical Tracks, the Eugene Concert Choir and Orchestra present 'Black Is Beautiful.'
New Classical Tracks®

Conductors Diane Retallack and Eugene Rogers present 'Black Is Beautiful'

New Classical Tracks (Extended Interview) - Black is Beautiful
New Classical Tracks - February 28, 2024
New Classical Tracks - February 28, 2024

Diane Retallack/Eugene Rogers/Eugene Concert Choir and Orchestra/Exigence Choir – Black Is Beautiful (Navona Records)

“I would try to call him at the University of Michigan and it would ring Ronald McDonald House. I don't know why that was,” conductor Diane Retallack says. “And finally, I get this wonderful call from Eugene saying, ‘I understand you’ve really been trying to get a hold of me.’”

Retallack is the artistic director, conductor and executive director of Eugene Concert Choirs, Orchestra and Vocal Arts. She was inspired to reach out to Eugene Rogers because of a video with the Michigan Men’s Glee Club that rocked the choral world in 2015. She wanted to collaborate with Rogers on the same work featured in that video, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, by Joel Thompson.

That collaboration became a reality last spring when Rogers and his professional ensemble, Exigence, went to Oregon for a weeklong event called Black Is Beautiful. Thompson cofounded Exigence with Rogers, and the culmination of the Black Is Beautiful event has been captured on a new recording that was recently released.

“So the project was Thompson’s Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” Retallack says. “It was more like a musical diary to deal with his feelings and the thoughts he had after the death of Eric Garner. And I knew if I were going to do this piece, I would need to have an authentic voice with us. And that's what led me to seek out Eugene.”

Eugene, when you and Diane finally connected and she told you about what she wanted to do, what was your first thought?

Rogers: “I knew that she wanted to engage and work with me on thinking through the whole experience and having singers of color join, in addition to featuring a powerful work that both of us loved, by Undine Smith Moores, Scenes From the Life of a Martyr. We both commented on that call that there's no recordings of this work. It's hard to get the score. And so I was in right away.”

Retallack: “So I had actually called Eugene only knowing about the University of Michigan Men's Glee Club. But then he told me about Exigence, his professional choir of the Sphinx organization. We just hit it off immediately. We were both just so excited, talking about all the possibilities. And when I realized that they could do both Seven Last Words of the Unarmed and Scenes From the Life of a Martyr, it was very exciting and I felt like, ‘Oh, Eugene can fulfill all of my visions.’”

Thompson’s work takes its inspiration from Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ. Can you talk about that and the parallels we’re hearing in this work?

Rogers: “Joel used that as a framework to decide which last words he would actually use. One of the ones that comes to me is Woman Behold Thy Son. For example, when those words are said, Joel uses Mom, I'm Going to College. This is very much the relationship between a mother and a son.”

Could each of you highlight a section of the piece that is powerful to you?

Retallack: They Tell Me That Martin Is Dead is shocking. The choir is shouting. It's wailing; it's screaming. And what follows is the opening part of Tell All My Father's People, and yet it goes on to be a simple hymn and to say, ‘Don't you grieve for me?’ And with the most beautiful, triumphant, ‘Hallelujah! Amen.’”

Rogers: “I think for me, one of my favorite parts is Martin's Song. Our soloist, Demetrius Sampson, you can feel when he sings that he has personalized Martin's aria and his acceptance. And it rises up and he ends on a high, a full voice, full orchestra. It is a powerful moment and he delivers.”


Diane Retallack/Eugene Rogers/Eugene Concert Choir and Orchestra/Exigence Choir – Black Is Beautiful (Navona Records)

Diane Retallack/Eugene Rogers/Eugene Concert Choir and Orchestra/Exigence Choir – Black Is Beautiful (Amazon)

Eugene Concert Choir & Orchestra (official site)

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