SMTD launches Michigan Orchestra Repertoire for Equity

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The School of Music, Theatre & Dance has launched a 10-year project to commission 10 new orchestral works with the intention of diversifying the orchestral repertoire.

Established in 2020 by Kenneth Kiesler, director of university orchestras and professor of conducting, the Michigan Orchestra Repertoire for Equity will commission one new composition for orchestra each year for the duration of the project.

These new works will be premiered and recorded with the aim of expanding the classical orchestral repertoire and bringing important new artistic voices to the fore.

MORE will contribute to SMTD’s longstanding practice of commissioning and performing works by a broad range of contemporary compositional voices. The project is an extension of SMTD’s pledge to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion in its climate and curricula, and to inspire more diverse representation in the performing arts landscape.

Three compositions have been commissioned to date. The first, “Tethered Voices,” was initially recorded on video in September 2021 but will have its first live performance at U-M on April 6. Composed by SMTD alumnus James Lee III, this eight-minute work for narrator and orchestra is a setting of a new poem of the same name by poet and conductor Kalena Bovell.

The second commissioned work, “Tales: A Folklore Symphony,” is a 20-minute, multimovement work by Carlos Simon, also an SMTD graduate, based on African American and African folk tales. This work was premiered by the University Symphony Orchestra on Jan. 26 at Hill Auditorium, on a program that included “Voices Shouting Out” by Nkeiru Okoye and “Negro Folk Symphony” by William Dawson.

The third composition is a concert-length work by Nkeiru Okoye for orchestra, chorus, four vocal soloists, and speaker. This commission has been made possible with the support of U-M alumnus David A. Feldman and Roni Jacobson. The work is inspired by writings by and about Maya Angelou and will be premiered by the USO and University Choirs, conducted by Kiesler, during the 2023–24 academic year.

Each composer will collaborate with SMTD students to bring the new work to its premiere performance and recording. The initiative also will create a framework for collaboration and interdisciplinary explorations within SMTD and across other U-M schools, colleges and programs.

Kenneth Kiesler

In devising this project, Kiesler had several goals. He wanted to facilitate the expansion of classical orchestral offerings to more accurately represent composers working today, and to launch “an initiative that would have an impact over the long term.”

“We plan to record all of these pieces for wide distribution, and we hope to help orchestras expand their view of programming so that these works become woven into the fabric of their regular repertoire,” Kiesler said.

SMTD Dean David Gier, the Paul Boylan Collegiate Professor of Music, said the school is honored to play a role in making the repertoire of classical music more representative and inclusive

“I’m especially excited that MORE will give SMTD students much-needed exposure to living composers, a critical component of any music program. This initiative is a part of SMTD’s broader commitment to elevate and promote a wide range of voices in the performing arts,” Gier said.

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