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Student performers showcase underrepresented composers in First Fridays Series

Courtesy of Cat Zachary screenshot from  Nov. 2020 First Fridays performance featuring Gum Box..png
Screenshot from the Nov. 2020 First Fridays performance featuring Gum Box. Photo courtesy of Cat Zachary.

In the early 1900s, Florence Price, a Black female prize-winning composer, struggled to find work and often found herself moving from place to place as a result. Black composers rarely received the same recognition as others, so when UNC students Maria Manning and Ayman Bejjani studied her work, they decided to help bring her work to life through the First Fridays Series.

Manning and Bejjani are among several student performers that will highlight music from underrepresented composers in the UNC Department of Music’s First Fridays Series, hosted on March 5 and April 9 at 12 p.m. 

Manning, a first-year neuroscience and violin performance student, will be performing Price’s “String Quartet in G Major,” along with other students. 

“In a field where there's a lot of white, male composers from Europe, it’s important to highlight those that are not and show how great their work is too,” Manning said.

When she first heard Price's music, Manning said she felt it was really similar to other classical music from that time and later learned composers drew inspiration from southern gospel music. 

Manning said she hopes the audience will find value in connections that can be drawn from learning about different composers' history.

Student performers researched and selected pieces by underrepresented composers who are meaningful to them. They will present the pieces along with program notes about the musical works, composers and historical context.

Erin Pratt, a musicology Ph.D. candidate and mezzo-soprano, will be singing songs by composer Robert Owens in her first public online performance. Pratt is the first graduate student to perform in the series. 

Pratt said Owens was an African American expatriate and piano player who fell in love with German music at a young age. 

“I think one of the best things we can do as performers is to perform the music by these composers,” Pratt said.

One of the difficult things that Pratt found about approaching this music is that it's hard to find examples to guide them, such as recordings of music by the composers themselves, because they aren't circulated widely. 

“Performing the songs and making the recordings accessible online and places like YouTube is a really helpful way to get the ball rolling,” Pratt said. “That way, more people in the future are able to access the songs easily and can decide to perform them.”

Cat Zachary, communications coordinator for the UNC Department of Music, decided to create the series with Crystal Wu of Arts Everywhere in 2019 to bring music to spaces where you wouldn't expect to find it.

When the series was in-person, it showcased half-hour performances in the rotunda of Hill Hall and had pop-ups in different locations around campus, such as the FedEx Global Education Center's lobby.

This year, the series is hosted through a Facebook watch party of the prerecorded performances. Zachary said she anticipates they will provide the same creative interruption during the day as they once did.

While the aspect of a live surprise interaction will be missed, going virtual means the performers can watch with audiences and the comment sections can connect them together.

Zachary sees the program as a way to connect students with social justice, particularly after the events from the summer of 2020 and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We thought, what better way to get our students doing the work and hopefully discovering new pieces and composers than to ask them to do the work with First Friday Series,” Zachary said.

The department also had a series called Do the Work Wednesdays, which features artists of color and anti-racist resources related to music.

Zachary said studio teachers and ensemble directors have shared that students are seeking out more diversity in the music they choose. 

“I hope the series will expose people to some of this music they may never have heard and inspire them to look deeper into the repertoire of those composers that they're seeing and hearing in the series,” Zachary said.

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