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Festival of New American Music to put spotlight on underrepresented artists

Boston-based contemporary duo Transient Canvas will perform on Nov. 14, one of the final concerts in Sac State’s Festival of New American Music. (Photo courtesy of the Sacramento State School of Music)

Last year, as Tim Stanley and Scott Perkins considered the lineup for 2021’s Festival of New American Music, they already were thinking about showcasing Black composers and musicians, as well as artists from other underrepresented groups.

After the murder of George Floyd that summer sparked a global reckoning with racism and systemic injustice, they knew that was the direction they had to go.

“Right now, especially with classical music writ large, we’re having a bit of a moment when it comes to how we relate to members of our own community of color,” said Stanley, a Music lecturer who codirects the festival with Perkins, an assistant professor of Music. “I like that all of these conversations are happening, because it’s long overdue.”

Baird Tau Murray
During FeNAM, mezzo-soprano Linda Baird, baritone Omari Tau, the Chevalier String Quartet, and conductor Ryan Murray will perform “As One,” a chamber opera in which Baird and Tau will portray the same transgender character, before and after their transition. (Photo courtesy of Sacramento State School of Music)

The Nov. 7-14 event, which is the longest-running festival featuring music composed in the last 20 years by American citizens or residents, makes that planning a reality. The first half of the event features predominantly Black composers and performers, with the second half highlighting the work of transgender and nonbinary artists.

The Festival of New American Music, also known as FeNAM, has been presented annually since 1971. This event again will be virtual because of the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic during its planning stages. Performances will be viewable on the Sac State School of Music Facebook page.

Highlighting the work of under-the-radar and up-and-coming musicians has always been a unique feature of FeNAM, Stanley said. Featuring Black and transgender artists takes that goal a step further by spotlighting individuals who historically have been denied access to music performance spaces.

“Probably my least favorite thing about classical music – and most classical musicians’ least favorite thing about classical music – is how elite it can come across as,” Stanley said. “One of the nice things about new music, in particular, is that it pushes back a little bit against that because somebody can have a great idea and can bring it to fruition.

“Access to players and performers and venues and festivals and things like that is something that needs to grow for traditionally underrepresented composers.”

Among the Black artists featured in this year’s FeNAM are composer and saxophonist Matthew Evan Taylor, the quintet Imani Winds, and the work of composer Shawn Okpebholo.

The festival also will include the chamber opera As One, one of the first operas to feature a transgender main character. Two separate artists, mezzo-soprano Linda Baird and baritone Omari Tau, portray the same character before and after their transition. Kimberly Reed, a transgender woman, co-wrote the opera’s libretto.

The festival closes with the Sacramento State Choirs performing vocal music from transgender composers.

Faythe Vollrath

Sac State alumna and harpsichordist Faythe Vollrath is among the artists who will perform during this year’s Festival of New American Music. (Photo courtesy of Sacramento State School of Music)

“With transgender composers, that’s still in the ‘nobody-talks-about-that’ phase,” Stanley said. “We were having conversations about racial equity and classical music before. Not a lot was changing, but we were at least having the conversations. I’m not even sure that those conversations (about transgender artists) are happening as much as they should be, or could be.”

The virtual format, while not the same as live performances in Sac State’s concert hall, nevertheless has advantages, Stanley said. In both the lineup of artists and concertgoers, geography – who can physically get to Sacramento – is not a limitation.

Further, Stanley and Perkins noticed during master-class sessions held on Zoom last year that students and others could interact with the artists in the platform’s chat section. That added level of engagement, Stanley said, convinced them to explore how to include one or two virtual sessions in all future festivals.

FeNAM is free and open to the public, providing access to classical music to the public and aligning with Sacramento State’s mission and role in the community, Stanley said.

“We’re not a music conservatory. We’re a state school with a School of Music, and it’s a state school that has a diverse student population,” he said. “The students that come here are often first-generation college students, and I love the idea of, ‘I’m now at college, and I’m also getting exposure to a free concert on my college campus.’

“If I’m a transgender student, a transgender composer, there’s a space now for that, and not just in the concert world but in my experience of the collegiate experience, and I think Sac State is perfectly poised for that because of what we are, because of who we are.”

For the full FeNAM lineup and to watch the concerts, visit the FeNAM web page.

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About Jonathan Morales

Jonathan Morales joined the Sac State communications team in 2017 as a writer and editor. He previously worked at San Francisco State University and as a newspaper reporter and editor. He enjoys local beer, Bay Area sports teams, and spending time outdoors with his family and dog.

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