Daniel Bernard Roumain is halfway through his two-year tenure as resident artistic catalyst at the New Jersey Symphony, and his contributions have been revelatory. He’s an impact-maker and an action-taker, visionary and vital.
The day we spoke by phone, Essex County had entered a heat advisory. Brutal triple-digit temperatures triggered alerts for millions of Americans, coast to coast. Roumain was on fire. Ideas swirled around him like embers. He spoke the way he composes: lyrical and virtuosic, lashed with rebellions.
Most people with his means would have fled the city heat for the mountains or the shore, but Roumain was exactly where he wanted to be, in Newark, with his New Jersey Symphony Chamber Players for its second annual Newark Museum of Art Summer Series. The partnership between the New Jersey Symphony and the museum presents four chamber music concerts, ongoing through Aug. 17, in the museum’s intimate Alice Ransom Dreyfuss Memorial Garden.
Roumain described this year’s programming as “a heightened and deepened experience from last year. The New Jersey Symphony and I bring our audiences along for strategic journeys. I label them ‘Good Important Times.’ ”
Good Important Times happen in good important settings. The museum offers a slice of greenery in the urban heart and heat of New Jersey’s largest city. As I interviewed Roumain, the museum’s website ran a banner inviting its community to take shelter on its grounds during the current heat wave, and offered free bottled water.
Roumain is grateful the museum can offset the extreme weather for his audiences and musicians. He joked that, as a violinist, he never wants to feel like Nero, fiddling away as Rome burns.
“Programming is, hopefully, always responsive and responsible,” he added. “I would categorize it that way in the most general sense. For the New Jersey Symphony and myself, in addition to being responsive and responsible, we’re committed to our role in supplying relief and giving opportunities to our audiences. In some ways, to escape the trauma of the day. We do this with well-conceptualized public concerts that connect with its audiences and inspire new ways of thinking.”
Roumain’s artistic catalyst role reflects the evolution, over the last couple of years, of the American orchestral field, which had been lagging its nonprofit peers in equity and representation. New Jersey’s statewide orchestra, under the leadership of its music director, Xian Zhang, was an early adaptor. With the Roumain hire, the organization doubled down on its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
The 51-year-old Black Haitian-American is a man of many titles and talents — a composer, violinist, educator and activist. Born in Illinois and raised in Florida, he moved to New York in 1997. He holds a doctorate in music composition from the University of Michigan. He sits on the board of the League of American Orchestras and is vice chair at the Association of Performing Arts Professionals.
His north star is social justice. He’s particularly invested in the issues impacting Black communities such as the disproportionate public health and safety risks in the COVID-19 era, and the uptick in senseless hate crimes and domestic terrorism against Black Americans. The violin is his tool of change.
“I’ve always taken my work to be artistic work and social work,” he said, and noted a handful of groundbreaking compositions he wrote during the pandemic such as “Why Did They Kill Sandra Bland,” “Music for Black People,” “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “They Still Wanna Kill Us,” an aria to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
As a gatekeeper of classical music, he’s not trying to disrupt the canon, he explains. Rather, he’s expanding and adding to it.
Roumain’s inaugural 2021 summer series tackled the colossal challenge of navigating a global pandemic.
“So last summer, like most arts organizations, we were responding to a series of overlapping crises: the pandemic, changes in our fiscal system, our judicial system, not least of which, a worldwide fight for social justice predicated on the Black Lives Matter movement.
“How do you respond to all of that and create programming that’s responsible? For me, as a Black person and as a Black man, it’s difficult to juggle all of these things and think about all of these things when I’m working within classical music, which has its own problems. Like most people, we all have a job to do. I like to put it this way, succinctly: I’m not a first responder. Artists aren’t first responders, but can we be second? Can we be third? Can we participate in healing? So last summer I was really thinking about hearing and healing.”
Roumain praised both the museum and the symphony for rising to the towering challenges of the pandemic and making the health and safety of their patrons a top priority. “I’ve been saying to both organizations that we’re all involved in one thing: public health. Protecting and serving our audiences. Audiences feel safer and more enabled. And quite frankly, there’s a hunger to get out and be with other people.”
A strong turnout at the recent July 13 series-opening concert, “Winds in the Garden,” sent a strong signal. Audiences are returning.
Roumain will return to the museum’s garden on July 27 at 7 p.m. for his concert, “Moving, Believing and Being Together,” a journey of music through an emotional arc. Conductor John Yaffé, Roumain’s first conducting teacher from high school, will be alongside him in his NJ Symphony debut. As an arranger, Yaffé copies and prepares all of Roumain’s scores and parts. “These circles and cycles of life within the arts is something I wanted to impress upon our audiences,” Roumain said of the longstanding friendship.
“He’s white and I’m saying that because one of the things I intend to talk about, which is inherent to my work and the work of the New Jersey Symphony, is allyship. Being aware and conscious and responsive to racial inequity and biases, and also inequities in terms of how one identifies in their orientation.”
The program starts with Ukraine’s national anthem in a show of solidarity for the war-torn country, followed by Roumain’s arrangement of James Weldon Johnson’s hymn, Lift Every Voice and Sing. Roumain explained, “I feel it’s very important that we acknowledge loss and those who aren’t with us.”
Students from the Anne Lieberson Ensemble of the New Jersey Symphony Youth Orchestra will play Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet with the symphony’s Chamber Players. Along with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro overture, the classic selections draw parallels between the past and the future. Pieces by Terry Riley (In C) and Aleksandra Vrebalov (Echolocations) were chosen for their open scores, which “allows the musicians to, in some ways, improvise and create commentary with both of these composers,” said Roumain. Florence Price’s Adoration and Farrenc’s Selections from Nonet in E-flat Major touch on equity and fair representation, both composers being underrepresented women who wrote important works.
The concert concludes with Roumain’s Hip-Hop Study & Etude in F Major and E-flat Major, which speaks about race, the past and the future.
Roumain’s “Summer, Time and Jazz” concert, Aug. 3 at 7 p.m., presents jazz and jazz-inspired classical music. Audiences are invited inside the museum one hour prior to explore its jazz-themed exhibitions “Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photographs by Jerry Dantzic” and “Jazz Greats: Classic Photographs from the Bank of America Collection.”
Roumain’s artistic vision for the concert began with a very simple notion: to spotlight the strengths of the symphony’s brass and woodwind sections and musicians, some of whom have played together for 30 years. One of the musicians, principal bassoon Robert Wagner, curated the series’ first “Winds in the Garden” concert; Roumain described him as “a real advocate for making classical music more diverse.”
The concert highlights Roumain’s affinity to jazz. As a professor at Arizona State University, he studies improvisation in hip-hop and jazz music, and how the genres overlap. “All of these pieces on the program allow for moments of improvisation,” he said. “One of my roles, I’d like to think, as the resident artistic catalyst, is to think about the professional development of our musicians and to be a part of their lifelong music-learning process. So I’m really excited that some of the pieces allow for this. The musicians can and will improvise, and they’ll create these moments in these concerts.”
The program opens with Valerie Coleman’s “Red Clay & Mississippi Delta.” Roumain calls her a wonderful composer and a dear friend, and adds she’s the first Black female composer whose work has been performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Paquito D’Rivera, the Grammy Award-winning clarinetist, saxophonist and composer, will present and play his Lecuonerías and selections from Aires Tropicales. The concert follows with Tania León’s De Memorias and Saóko, and Roumain’s Hip-Hop Study & Etude in G Minor.
The series wraps on Aug. 17 with a “Bass & Flute Extravaganza!” curated by principal bass Ha Young Jung and featuring classic works from Bach, Rossini and Schulhoff and modern sounds from Dorothy Rudd Moore, Morton Gould and Valerie Coleman.
After a late-summer pause, the New Jersey Symphony returns in the fall to launch its 2022-23 centennial season. The milestone season is packed with gems, and Roumain will be among a handful of living composers to world-premiere new works.
For more on the orchestra and its festival, visit njsymphony.org.
For more on Roumain, visit danielroumain.com.
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