A new choral work acknowledges a racial reckoning at Missouri's William Jewell College
William Jewell College has commissioned a new choral work, “The Canon for Racial Reconciliation,” which is part of a broader effort at the college to reckon with the institution's racial history. The music melds Orthodox liturgy with gospel sounds, and is co-written by composers Nicholas Reeves and Isaac Cates.
Prior to 2021, no official history of William Jewell College acknowledged slavery's role in its founding.
In April 2021, William Jewell College announced the establishment of a Racial Reconciliation Commission to find and express the truth about the racial history of the institution. The commission "guides the communication of these findings" to ensure that the college moves forward "in an intentional way," according the school's website.
A new choral work emerged out of one of those efforts. The premiere performance for "Canon for Racial Reconciliation" brings together students from William Jewell's music department with two local semiprofessional vocal groups, Ordained and Cardinalis.
Anthony Maglione, director of Choral Studies at William Jewel College and a doctor of musical arts, is the leader of Cardinalis and will conduct the premiere. He says this new work fits into William Jewell's efforts to deal with its ties to slavery and racial injustice.
"They are trying to own up to this past of having enslaved workers," he says. "Some (building namesakes) and certain members who founded the school did have slaves. What William Jewell is trying to do is be transparent, the best we can, with the community about our history, and then address it and then make changes to move forward and be better."
Maglione says the administration was enthusiastic about this new musical work.
"This piece of music addresses head on this topic, and as soon as I presented it, the administration just dove in," he says. "They thought that this would be a great project to support."
Kansas City composer and conductor Isaac Cates is co-writing the work, which melds Orthodox church music with American gospel sounds. The musical combination makes sense to Cates, who, like Maglione, has decades of experience in choral music.
"We found ways to bring the traditions, the sounds, the oral traditions all together," he says. "Even the composing of the piece, I think, is reconciliatory."
Cates, along with composer Nicholas Reeves, set to music a collection of poetic reflections on race relations by Dr. Carla Thomas. Thomas practices family and emergency medicine in Anniston, Alabama, and is well-versed in Orthodox liturgy.
"(She) is an African American convert to Orthodoxy and she penned this over 20 years ago," says Maglione. "I don't know that she thought that 20 years later it would still be as relevant as it is, but here we are."
Students from William Jewell College are excited to premiere this important work alongside the professional singers in Ordained and Cardinalis.
"These students are good," says Maglione. "They work their butts off, they practice diligently, and it's pretty darn amazing."
The project brings up complex emotions for Cates.
"As a Black man, I have lived through some very interesting things in my 38 years, from racial profiling to belonging," Cates says. "I go in classical circuits and I'm (known as) the 'gospel guy.' I go in gospel Black circuits and I'm the 'classical dude.'"
Those preconceptions, he says, affect how listeners interpret his music.
"If you heard (the music) before you saw us, it wouldn't be 'soulful,' it would just be beautiful. Do we sing soulful? Absolutely, when it's time for it — but so can white people. And Black people can sing beautiful arias as well," he says. "I just think breaking down some of these ... implicit biases that we all have and facing them and saying, 'You know what? I'm in that too. We're in it together.'"
Maglione believes deeply in the power of this music and the impact singing in a group can have.
"I hope this moves people, and I hope it makes them think about the way they interact with our brothers and sisters that don't look like us," he says. "We've got to find a way to appreciate each other and respect each other with our various beliefs and our various appearances."
He also believes more collaborative work can bring them closer to that goal.
"I believe if everyone sang in choir, maybe they'd all learn how to listen to each other," Maglione says.
"It is so important to remember that we're humans," says Cates. "We're living this shared experience and we need each other."