Oakland jazz composer and performer Destiny Muhammad plays a major role in the upcoming Santa Cruz Symphony season, but a synchronicity worthy of her first name seems to have played a part, as well.
In the fall of last year, Muhammad was invited by members of a peace organization to perform a 15-minute set at one of their virtual events. They told her, “There’s a young woman who’s going to recite a poem or two right before you go on.”
Muhammad was impressed by the young poet, but she didn’t think anything more about it until she watched Amanda Gorman read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony in January. She was blown away.
“After she recited her poem,” says Muhammad, “I was like, ‘Oh, she is fierce. Why does she look familiar?’”
That’s when she got the “Do you know who that is?” phone call, where she was reminded that Gorman was in fact the young poet she had followed at the virtual event. And a month later, Santa Cruz Symphony Music Director Daniel Stewart was asking her if she would read Gorman’s poem at a concert when the symphony returned.
They funny thing is, Muhammad wasn’t that surprised when he did. She’d already discovered he was excited by “The Hill We Climb” when they were working on a San Francisco Symphony Soundbox virtual event together in February.
“I mean, literally excited,” recalls Muhammad. “I will share with you that we were in the Soundbox working on the composition by a beautiful jazz artist by the name of Ambrose Akinmusire. And [Stewart] actually started to recite the poem in front of me. I was like, wow. He says, ‘This just feels so good to me.’ And I was like, ‘Well … yay!’ And so fast forward to when he says, ‘Would you be willing to do it?’ Um, yeah!”
Stewart was so enamored of the poem that he ended up naming the Feb. 12 concert in which Muhammad will perform it Beethoven and the Hill We Climb.
It may sound strange to combine a tribute to Hall of Fame white dude Ludwig van Beethoven (whom many symphonic groups are celebrating this year, since it was hard to do so in 2020, the 250th anniversary of his birth) with an examination of the Black experience in America. But it’s not as strange as you think, says Muhammad. The common denominators are struggle and artistic expression, she says, and she relates Beethoven’s famous battle with the loss of his hearing to a similar experience African American historian John Henry Clarke talked about when he started to lose his sight.
“What he shared is that even though his outer sight was gone, his inner sight seemed to become more intense,” says Muhammad. “So here we go, we look at Beethoven, and his music seemed to become even more powerful as his outer ability to hear was gone, but his inner ability to hear was even more intense.”
Similarly, she says, the seemingly unusual approach of pairing her recitation of the poem with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata actually fits beautifully. One might expect something musically rousing to back Gorman’s work, but the sonata captures the melancholy of the poem’s themes, and ends—just like moonlight does—as “the new dawn blooms.”
“For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it,” recites Muhammad. “There are things that she says in the poem that are just so poignant, they’re so heartfelt. Even speaking of herself, where she says, ‘Where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.’ It’s like she’s already prophesying over herself, unapologetically and flat-footed. Man, I mean, that’s some bossness that I just love.”
Muhammad is used to confounding expectations when examining struggle. One of the pieces she’s particularly known for—and which she’ll perform as part of the Beethoven and the Hill We Climb program—is her arrangement of the “Butterfly Jig,” a traditional Irish tune that was popular among immigrants who fled Ireland to America during the potato famine of the 1800s.
“Once they made their way into America, they were still playing all this beautiful music from their homeland, but they decided to change this song that was known as the ‘Widow’s Jig’ to the ‘Butterfly Jig,’” she says, “because the butterfly symbolizes transformation and new life, the struggle of transformation inside of the chrysalis—literally the melting down of oneself, and then the restructuring, and then having to force one’s way out. And no one can help you do it, because the butterfly becomes weakened if it’s helped out of that chrysalis.”
After a year lost to the pandemic, no one could help Stewart and the symphony with the transformations they needed to go through, either. But they come back this fall with some big changes, equally big plans for the future, and their most ambitious season ever.
Though last year’s season was cancelled, it was hardly a break for the Santa Cruz Symphony. There was plenty of work to be done. As pandemic and wildfires were ravaging the organization’s community, there were also huge cultural issues being raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. The very questions of the symphony’s mission and purpose had to be reconsidered.
“It made us all reexamine our priorities and how we share the most meaningful aspects of our art—what we’re doing to create a better world, to bring people together in a very positive, optimistic, life-affirming way,” says Stewart. “It was extremely difficult, because music can be the solace and the cathartic partner to traumatic moments for folks in every situation, whether it’s a pop song or, you know, a Mahler symphony. At first, we were scrambling to find ways to do that online, and thank goodness we had that medium. It was very challenging, in good ways, because it forced us to leverage all the difficulties and find the most concentrated form of what’s special about our art.”
Among the concerns closest to Stewart were the musicians in the symphony, whose work had been shut down not only in Santa Cruz but in every other organization they were involved in.
He and the symphony’s executive director at the time, Dorothy Wise, and Board President Linda Burroughs immediately began setting up a Musician’s Relief Fund for symphony players, which ended up raising more than $100,000—an amount practically unheard of for a symphony of this size.
“It’s a family,” says Stewart of the symphony. “It’s a network of friends and individual connections with folks who are going through everything across the board. There were so many deaths and tragedies, medically, house evacuations. It was so traumatic for all of us to see our friends going through these things, but the efforts to which people came together and supported was nothing less than showing the best of what we can do. Those inspiring situations kept on happening, and being a central rotor to connect things was one of the greatest silver linings. I couldn’t be more proud and grateful for our community coming together like that.”
When it became clear—or at least extremely likely—that there would be a season this year, Stewart had a new daunting task ahead of him: create a season that could both celebrate the triumph of returning to the stage and be true to everything that had happened in the meantime.
“We had to find a way of honoring what we had already put together for the season that wasn’t, but also to meet this moment,” he says. “It was absolutely essential to me that we do meet this moment and this reemergence with real purpose in the programming and in our collaboration.”
The result is a stunning lineup of concerts, even by the high standards Stewart has set in his eight years at the helm of the symphony. And though it weaves the theme of racial justice (along with several others) through the entire season—seven main programs from October through June, with auxiliary concerts—the centerpiece is most certainly Beethoven and the Hill We Climb.
“It might be my very favorite program [I’ve ever done], ultimately, because Destiny Muhammad is one of the most inspiring musicians I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with,” says Stewart. “She’s a vocalist, she’s a harpist. She’s an improviser extraordinaire, she’s a composer, she’s a community leader and organizer from Oakland, and she is going to anchor the middle of this program along with Beethoven, because Beethoven celebrated a birthday last year. And so every orchestra in the world was going to be celebrating, and we had a fantastic program featuring highlights of his symphonic works. But this time, this Beethoven-centric program is going to also address our current cultural struggles through examples of his struggle, and transcendence, as he went deaf and dealt with a whole bunch of challenges in his life. So all of that, interwoven with contemporary works directly inspired by him.”
Those works include Unsuk Chin’s Subito con Forza, which was composed for the Beethoven anniversary last year, and contains many allusions to his works.
“It starts with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, which is kind of the distilled struggle, the most quintessential example of Beethoven’s famous concentrated, fiery power,” says Stewart of the program. “And then the next piece is by the brilliant Unsuk Chin, she’s the leading Korean composer of her generation, and it’s directly influenced by the Coriolan Overture, and glows with color and is kind of a response to Beethoven.”
That’s followed by the centerpiece of the program, Muhammad’s reading. Stewart also believes the audience will be surprised at how “The Hill We Climb” and Beethoven’s composition elevate each other.
“The poem talks, it goes through the challenges so poetically, but it has an unmistakably optimistic tone to it,” he says. “Moonlight Sonata, however, is a very mournful reflective thing, with only moments of light—the moonlight or the optimism peeking through at times. So it shades this profoundly moving poem of Amanda’s in a way that actually suggests that the hill we climb is steeper than we would like it to be. There’s so much work left yet to do.”
The program also features Muhammad’s pieces, as well as composer José Pablo Moncayo’s Huapango, which will be accompanied by the dancing of ballet folklorico group Esperanza Del Valle. And among the other Beethoven works is Stewart’s arrangement of Holy Song of Thanks, from Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 15.
“In the second half, we celebrate the other most iconic part of Beethoven, which is his meditative, transcendent essence. And this is really personified for me by his late string quartets. For classical musicians, the late quartets of Beethoven are kind of like the Undiscovered Country of harmony and counterpoint.”
As the symphony’s programming evolves this year, so does the organization itself. Wise, the executive director who originally joined the group’s board in 1991, and served as its president twice before becoming ED, retired last July. The ensuing search to replace her resulted in the hiring of Gary Reece. Stewart, who lauds Wise’s shepherding of the symphony, thinks Reece is a great pick.
“I’m really happy for the opportunity to collaborate with Gary, because he’s a wonderful person. He’s a proven leader with such a wealth of experience and community connections, and so I’m really excited to go into the next chapter together with him,” he says.
And it will definitely be together, because the symphony’s other big news is that Stewart has signed a 10-year extension with the organization. A decade is a long time in the world of symphonies, and it’s clear that the Santa Cruz Symphony wanted to lock down their relationship with Stewart for as long as possible. He, in turn, chose to stay despite being courted by some major metropolitan symphonies.
“There are different ways to go about a musical career,” he says. “But to build something together consistently with an organization is actually a lot more rare than you would imagine. Because these contracts are usually more three-to-five-year types of things. And to add long-term continuity was something that meant so much to me, and in this incredible part of the world.”
Stewart is proud of what the symphony has accomplished in his time there, the great work he and the musicians have brought out in each other, and the world-class guest artists they’ve been able to collaborate with.
“It’s been fantastic, and it’s taken everybody in the family, you know—the brilliant musicians and sponsors, board members, the league members, volunteers—to help us realize this, but I think we’ve created something so extraordinary over the last eight years. And that made the kind of trajectory that I was looking forward to, and also made it easier to make a hard decision like that. Because it was, of course, a difficult thing to consider. But I think the future is here, in this area of the world, and it’s the right time in my life, what I’m doing artistically, and I think that potential is just so off the charts, that we get to keep evolving in a very substantial, significant artistic way here.”
Shake Our Butts and Work
This season’s programming is an example of how the Santa Cruz Symphony is ready to realize that potential, and Muhammad is an example of more great collaborations to come. (Santa Cruz’s own Tammi Brown, who will do a similarly evocative narration in the middle section of John Wineglass’ Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked at the Jan. 15 “Rites of Passage” concert, is another.)
The final piece that Muhammad will perform, backed by Leon Joyce Jr., Ken Kawa and Matt Wong, is her original composition “We Are The Ones.” It was written in 2016, and found her being far too politically prescient for her own comfort.
“It was just before Barak was going out of office, and he symbolized so much hope,” she says. “And I just said, ‘We can’t get lazy, this brother’s getting ready to come out of office. We don’t know what we’re gonna get.’ These lyrics kept coming to me, that there’s a wind that’s blowing and it’s bringing change today. And the change is going to stay. We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for. And we are the ones, whoever is in office, we’re the ones that we’ve been waiting for. We’re the lovers, we’re the leaders. We are those that we’ve been waiting for. And that’s where it came from. It came with that upbeat funk—let’s get busy. Let’s shake our butts and work.”
Since writing “We Are the Ones,” she sometimes performs a more subdued, introspective version. So which one will she play at the symphony event?
“Oh, we’re goin’ for the funky stuff,” she says. “I get all them strings, too? I’m not Jay Z, I’m Destiny. We gonna go for the funky stuff.”
There’s no doubt that in Muhammad’s hands, that’ll be a blast, but just as this season’s symphony program is not just about hearing great symphonic music, “We Are the Ones” is not just about shaking your butt.
“When I was coming up in the ’70s, there were songs that were coming out and we would just dance and sing, but after a while, when the shellac would hit the fan, sometimes those became the songs that would help to catapult us through a bad time,” says Muhammad. “What I’ve noticed is that sometimes you catch people dancing and singing, and at the same time we’re hitting a level deeper than just the epidermis. That can become their call to action.”
The Symphony’s 2021-2022 Season
‘Remembrance and Rejuvenation,’ Oct. 23
An all-strings program that includes Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Corelli’s Concerto grosso op. 6 no. 8, Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings.
‘Rites of Passage,’ January 15-16
Centered around John Wineglass’ Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked, the first full symphonic work about the enslavement of Africans and people of African descent in America; the performance features narration by Tammi Brown. Also works by Aaron Copland, Caroline Shaw and Brahms.
‘Beethoven and the Hill We Climb,’ February 12-13
Features several of Beethoven’s work—including Moonlight Sonata, with Destiny Muhammad reading Amanda Gorman’s ‘The Hill We Climb’—and much more.
Family Concert, March 27
Carnegie Hall’s The Orchestra Swings! program, which seeks to connect young people to orchestral music, presents a show featuring works by George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Florence Prince, featuring vocalist Omari Tau.
‘Kaleidoscopes,’ April 30-May 1
This program features the world premiere of local composer and Cabrillo College instructor Josef Sekon’s The Aptos Sound Project, as well as Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, featuring cellist James Baik, and more.
‘Carmina Burana,’ May 21-22
Carl Orff’s famous cantata, featuring Elliot Madore, Baritone; Raven McMillon, Soprano; Jonah Hoskins, Tenor. Program begins with Monteverdi’s Toccata and Ritornello from l’Orfeo.
‘Life,’ June 18
The music of Philip Glass will accompany Santa Cruz photographer Frans Lanting’s epic project Life: A Journey Through Time, which brings his world-famous eye to the very history of the Earth itself.
Performances are at the Santa Cruz Civic and the Mello Center in Watsonville. Tickets are $38.50 to $104.50, students $15. Go to santacruzsymphony.org for more information and to buy tickets.