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Classical 101

Musicians tell their own stories in Bach to Biggie – A Juneteenth Concert

Stephen Spottswood standing on conductor's podium conducting an orchestra on a stage
David Turner
Courtesy of the Columbus Cultural Orchestra
Stephen Spottswood conducting the Columbus Cultural Orchestra

For Stephen Spottswood, the Juneteenth holiday commemorating the 1865 emancipation of enslaved African Americans isn’t just a single day.

“We celebrate Juneteenth every day, 365 days a year,” Spottswood said.

And every day, as a music educator and the founder of the Columbus Cultural Orchestra, Spottswood celebrates Juneteenth musically by striving to erase the divide between European classical works and the repertoire of hip-hop, soul and R&B tunes – all of which have equal footing on his orchestra’s concerts.

Spotswood will lead the Columbus Cultural Orchestra in Bach to Biggie – A Juneteenth Concert on Friday, June 16 at 6 p.m. in the Ross Community Studio at WOSU Public Media Headquarters, 1800 N. Pearl Street, in Columbus, 43201.

Founded in 2020, the orchestra is comprised of string instrument players ranging from students in their teens to accomplished musicians in their 30s. The orchestra’s mission is to perform the blend of music from the African American and European classical traditions that Spottswood has embraced since childhood.

During his youth, Spottswood played classical music on his violin in the school orchestra and at home listened to hip-hop and R&B and heard his father, a church music director, play gospel music on the keyboard.

“My dad had a B3 Hammond organ in our garage,” Spottswood said, “and I can remember as a kid him playing that at 6:00 in the morning, just an hour of church organ.”

Spottswood questioned why the European and African American musical traditions were performed and heard in separate contexts. Now, everything about the Columbus Cultural Orchestra’s repertoire and rehearsal process brings European classical and African American musical repertoires into the same room.

On the orchestra’s Juneteenth concert, the stirring Life Every Voice and Sing, by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, rubs shoulders with Spottswood’s I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, a solo violin work inspired by the final speech of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., his string orchestra arrangements of tunes by Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé, SZA and Black Eyed Peas and his original classical crossover work Beathoven.

“It’s very classical sounding, but it has a beat to it,” Spottswood said of Beathoven. “If you were to take away the beat, you would just think it was a classical piece of music, but the beat complements it in a way where it just makes sense.”

In addition to programming diverse repertoire, Spottswood devotes half of each rehearsal to giving the orchestra’s musicians real-world experience at improvising – making up tunes on the spot while accompanied by the orchestra or a backing track. Improvisation is a skill central to African American music but is not traditionally covered in Western classical string instrument training.

“We work on playing from your heart and from your soul,” Spottswood said. “When you see someone play from their heart and they start to close their eyes and they go into this zone, it’s a totally different experience and it’s just powerful. Yes, play the Beethoven, play the Bach, but tell your own story, too. And everybody has a story to tell.”

Bach to Biggie: The Juneteenth Concert takes place Friday, June 16 at 6 p.m. in the Ross Community Studio at WOSU Public Media Headquarters, 1800 N. Pearl Street, Columbus, 43201. Purchase Tickets.

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.