Etienne Charles Presents Piece With New York Philharmonic


Jaap van Zweden said, “The open minds of the orchestra members are amazing. The soul of the city comes out of these people. It feels very natural.”

(Photo: Laura Ferreira)

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the gleaming cultural complex on Manhattan’s West Side, was built on land once occupied by Lenape Indians, who were pushed out by Dutch settlers, who in turn were vanquished by the English. And so the story went, up to the period after World War II, when much of the culturally rich, if economically poor, neighborhood of San Juan Hill was swallowed by the fashionable forces of urban renewal.

That is where Etienne Charles comes in. The trumpeter, composer and native Trinidadian has made a specialty of creating works built around marginalized communities, and his latest work, “San Juan Hill,” certainly fills that bill. For the piece, Charles’ sextet, augmented by flute and turntable, will join forces with the New York Philharmonic in an hourlong exploration of the history of the six-by-three-block slice of the West 60s — and it will do so in the voices of those who lived there.

“My music is 100 percent about people — how they present themselves, how they present their culture, how they present their ancestors,” Charles said in a recent Zoom call.

The piece, commissioned by Lincoln Center and scheduled to have its premiere there on Oct. 8, is, Charles said, still very much a work in progress. But in broad outline, he likened it to a city in that it will “continuously build.” It will draw on key points in the history, nodding to the Lenape and progressing onward before digging into the fertile period when migration from points south yielded a vibrant mix of cultural influences from the African diaspora.

Delving into oral histories and other academic research, Charles discovered how heavily jazz musicians figured in the mix. Some, he said, were San Juan Hill natives who will provide inspiration for his piece. Among them: pianists Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk; clarinetist Russell Procope, a mainstay of Duke Ellington’s band; and saxophonist Benny Carter, who wrote “Echoes Of San Juan Hill,” a precursor to Charles’ work that had its premiere in 1996 with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

One neighborhood resident whose work Charles expressed particular interest in bringing to life is James P. Johnson, the Jazz Age composer of “The Charleston,” who developed stride piano in nightspots like the jumping Jungles Casino — “a cellar without fixings,” as Johnson called it — on West 62nd Street. In evoking that world, Charles will turn to the eminently adaptable pianist Sullivan Fortner, who is already in his band, Creole Soul, as are Godwin Louis (saxophone), Alex Wintz (guitar), Ben Williams (bass) and John Davis (drums). Flutist Elena Pinderhughes and turntablist DJ Logic will also be on hand, while poet Carl Hancock Rux will contribute spoken word, part of a multimedia element that will include video vignettes and visual art.

The work, co-presented by Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic with financing from Cecily M. Carson and the Carson Family Charitable Trust, will be among the first major compositions to be performed at David Geffen Hall after a $550 million makeover, the first major redesign of the space since 1976, when its name was changed from Philharmonic Hall to Avery Fisher Hall. The renovations are an apt metaphor for the neighborhood’s developmental churn writ large, and that too will provide raw material for Charles, who spoke about orchestrating the sounds of destruction and reconstruction as he weaves the textures of everyday life into his narrative.

The first part of the piece will feature the band Creole Soul, which will combine with the full orchestra for the last part. The small group has in the past painted vivid aural pictures of marginalized people, most recently in March at the San Francisco premiere of Charles’ “Greenwood,” a piece commemorating the destruction of a thriving Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. While combining with the philharmonic will expand his palette considerably, merging jazz ensembles with symphony orchestras can be tricky. But Charles expects no complications. Nor does Jaap van Zweden, the philharmonic’s conductor and music director, who, in an interview, said he felt comfortable with such an integration since his personal tastes and those of his musicians often ran toward the popular realm.

“It fits in my whole body and in my spiritual life,” he said, adding: “The open minds of the orchestra members are amazing. The soul of the city comes out of these people. It feels very natural.”

Lincoln Center officials seem intent on reaching deeper into the city’s soul by addressing the processes that ultimately led to their institution’s creation, and they view Charles’ piece as a vehicle to help them do so. Speaking at a March 21 gathering to announce the philharmonic’s 2022–’23 season, Lincoln Center President and CEO Henry Timms said Charles’ commission was part of an effort to demonstrate that “we’re engaged with that history.”

“We try to tell the story of where we come from as a way of navigating where we’re going next,” he said. “This is the piece that’s telling the story: This is your home.”

The larger strategy will literally expand Lincoln Center’s reach into the community: The renovated hall’s stage will be moved forward 25 feet and the redesign will create a wraparound effect for the audience. The renovation project will also include a new, more intimate stage, Sidewalk Studio, and programming that will feature all kinds of works, some for improvisers who previously might not have been heard at Lincoln Center.

For his part, Charles asserted that his vision conformed with Lincoln Center’s, even as he recognized that, in some quarters, his introducing a work at the center that is about the neighborhood it helped displace might produce a few curious looks.

“I understand how it probably seems ironic that we’re going to play this piece and premiere it at Lincoln Center,” he said, “but I think it’s also important for Lincoln Center to do this.” It is, he added, “an acknowledgement that to move forward in any way, which is what they’re trying to do, the fact that a composer from Trinidad is writing a piece in the opening of Geffen Hall with one of the most storied orchestras in the history of orchestras — that’s a statement there.” DB

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