Damien Geter’s ‘Justice Symphony’ needs to be performed and appreciated nationwide
Composer Damien Geter

FRESNO, Calif. — Damien Geter is an up-and-coming composer who freely draws on his African-American heritage for his inspiration. He has several large commissions in the works, including for a couple of operas, and will surely be heard and spoken of widely in the years to come.

It was thanks to the thorough advance publicity work on behalf of soprano Karen Slack that I first heard about him. Ms. Slack, I was informed, was to sing the big solo part in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, performed by the Fresno Philharmonic and Fresno Master Chorale.

Now, for someone living in Los Angeles, I was not about to drive three and a half hours each way to hear the 9th, which would also have involved a hotel overnight—basically a two-day commitment.

It was the companion piece on the program, however, that captured my attention: the “Justice” Symphony by Damien Geter (pronounced JEE-ter), also using the full resources of a large orchestra and chorus, and also featuring Ms. Slack as soloist, based on musical themes from the civil rights movement and the struggle for African-American freedom.

Now, to be honest, I still had to ask myself if two days of my time was worth the effort to travel halfway up the state and back for this concert. But then I went online and heard a complete performance of Geter’s 32-minute-long symphony (link below) and I was blown away. Yes, I told the publicist, set aside two tickets for me. I will go to Fresno. I want to be in that number for the live West Coast premiere, and I will make sure readers know about this great new composer and this fantastic big work that needs to be performed and heard all over the country and beyond.

The single performance took place on Sunday, June 11, but it’s never too late to sing Geter’s praises. Hey, people in every land revere Beethoven, so move over, fella, and make a little room for someone today doing a similar thing in music. Both of these majestic compositions are seminal declarations for freedom. As Geter said in an interview with Donald Munro, arts commentator and former Fresno Bee reporter, “Beethoven was a political composer. A lot of people forget that.” Beethoven was allied with poets like Friedrich Schiller, whose humanist text the composer used for the 9th’s choral “Ode to Joy” in the last movement. They formed part of the 18th-century Enlightenment, and Beethoven extended his activity well into the 19th century with his opposition to absolute monarchy and his heralding of the new democratic winds blowing across the globe.

The Fresno performance was the first time the “Justice” Symphony had been paired with the Beethoven 9th. Geter explained that “I incorporate styles of the Black diaspora like jazz, gospel, and rhythm and blues into my music. I’m a product of all those things, just as much as I am a product of Beethoven.” Curiously, the two works are separated in time by almost exactly two centuries: Beethoven’s 9th premiered in 1824. It was Beethoven’s last symphony, and the “Justice” is Geter’s first.

June 11 turned out to have a special significance for a performance of Geter’s work. It was the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s televised address to the nation concerning civil rights in the leadup to the great March on Washington that took over the capital city that August. This speech, underlining the morality of equal rights, was the prelude to federal intervention on integration, at the University of Alabama, for example, and posthumously, under his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Volumes have been written about Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, a true anthem of humanity never surpassed, in many critics’ view, in the symphonic literature. The entire world knows the “Ode to Joy” in the final movement, which serves as the anthem of the European Union. I don’t have the space here to delve much further into the work, nor am I expert enough to do so.

Despite the endless variations, by orchestra, chorus, and soloists on the final song, it is in its simplest form, basically, a folk song meant to be taken up by masses of people declaiming, “Alle Menschen werden Brüder”—“All mankind will be brothers,” or “All humanity will be one family,” if we wish to avoid dated language. But there’s no disputing it: Schiller wrote it, Beethoven repeated it, and choruses keep shouting it: “Alle,” and they mean it.

One detail I’d never paid much attention to before now became clearer to me. In that same fourth movement Beethoven also includes several measures of a Turkish march, a sound Europeans would immediately hear as “foreign,” from the Ottoman Empire, but that we today might not identify as such. To them, at the time it stood out as Andean flutes or African drumming might today in an American symphony. The composer’s intent was underscored: All!

The fact that Beethoven was completely deaf when he wrote this grandest and musically most revolutionary of symphonies is almost beyond human comprehension and a testament to his genius. No one had ever heard music like this. “Thus Beethoven, harried and sick, feeling the weight of dismal times…inspired hope in other people as forthrightly and directly as possible,” writes the Marxist musicologist Sidney Finkelstein, “and gave them a grand, strong and joyous song to enshrine in their heart. His work was prophetic, for not long after, in July 1830, another revolution in France would give the Bourbon king Charles X his walking papers, crack the reactionary structure built by the Holy Alliance, and send a wave of excitement through Europe.”

The Fresno Philharmonic is led by its dynamic conductor Rei Hotoda, who also guest conducts elsewhere. Anna Hamre directs the Fresno Master Chorale, and both poured their years of musical devotion into a thrilling afternoon, with “Justice” on the first half followed by the 9th. The venue was Fresno’s 2350-seat William Saroyan Theatre, named for the local writer whose works turned him into possibly the most famous Armenian-American in our history.

A tribute to writer William Saroyan inside the concert hall | Eric A. Gordon/PW

The “Justice” Symphony was commissioned by The University of Michigan and The Washington Chorus. Structured in three movements, it is centered around anthems from the civil rights era that bonded people together in song. Karen Slack served as the call and response song leader, inspiring the 135-strong mixed chorus to ever greater heights of passion as hymns such as “Hold On,” “What it Means To Be Free,” “ Oh Freedom,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Precious Lord,” and the Black national anthem “Life Every Voice” are hurled out not as lamentation but as an urgent call for solidarity and righteousness. Geter has the chorus plead for justice not “some day” but “right now!” Karen Slack’s amazing voice, backed by the a cappella chorus in the final bars, brought the symphony to its majestic ending.

In the post-concert reception and interview with Geter, Slack, and Hotoda, the soprano cited her inspiration as the late operatic superstar Jessye Norman, and from the size of the voice, I could see the comparison. But as she was singing (and humming), I kept thinking instead of a new Leontyne Price, whose intonation was certainly as focused but whose sound always felt warmer to me. Anyway, I certainly look forward to hearing the gorgeous Ms. Slack again.

Conductor Rei Hotoda | Eric A. Gordon/PW

Geter’s eclectic musical roots summon up inspiration from Brahms’s Academic Overture, from Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, from Shostakovich’s symphonies, and, with the use of percussion imitating the sound of typewriter keys, even Leroy Anderson’s Typewriter Concerto, not to mention Beethoven, of course. His second movement opens with an open Coplandesque modality. Jangling tambourines sound like clanging chains. Chorus director Anna Hamre, in a pre-concert Zoom presentation, underscored the difficulty of the choral parts, with challenging mixed rhythmic shifts, as if to put the listener off-balance with a cascade of disruptive, disturbing asymmetry—perhaps a musicalized kind of “good trouble” that the late activist and U.S. Rep. John Lewis embraced.

(Another piece of incidental intelligence I learned from the Zoom speakers was that when engineers were first creating CD technology the question arose: How many minutes of music should we program a disc to hold, and the general agreement came down to: Enough for the Beethoven 9th.)

Geter also includes “Oriental” melismas in his instrumental writing, and a military march as though out of some big-budget movie, demonstrating further resonance with Beethoven’s 9th.

The audience rose as a single body in jubilant gratitude at the conclusion and the bows seemed to go on forever. We had experienced something—dare I say it?—comparable, perhaps, to what Beethoven’s listeners heard in 1824.

A complete performance of the “Justice” Symphony by The University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra & Choirs under Eugene Rogers can be found at the composer’s website. The symphony has not yet been professionally recorded.

Karen Slack and Damien Geter at the post-concert reception | Eric A. Gordon/PW

Oh, and by the way, I am far from finished in my delight in discovering Damien Geter. I need to mention that he is also a splendid, cavernous bass-baritone, who sang that part in the Beethoven 9th on June 11—dressed in a dashing, fire-engine red suit with pegged pants that at the reception afterwards he explained as his wanting to “break down the barrier of what classical music should be.” He has appeared in recital and opera (at the Metropolitan Opera, no less!). “What don’t you do?” asked someone in the Q&A. “I don’t dance.”

And Geter is also a sought-after conductor, and not exclusively of his own work. As a composer, he has two operatic commissions coming up, along with others. His operas concern the historic Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage throughout the land, and another, American Apollo, about Thomas McKeller, the Black man who served as the longtime model and companion of painter John Singer Sargent. Learn more at www.damiengetermusic.com.

Finally, I just want to observe that the whole afternoon seemed bathed in motherly love. The conductor, the choral director, the concertmaster, half the chorus, and something like half the orchestra, plus the soprano soloist (and Sarah Mesko, the mezzo in the 9th) were women. (Adam Diegel was the tenor soloist in the 9th.)

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.