Music has long been considered an agent of social change. At the height of the civil rights movement, Joan Baez shared her moody vocals to further pacifism, and The Staple Singers used gospel to mobilize communities. Historically speaking, it’s possible that song has united more times than it has estranged. But that’s not to say unification has been easy.
Just ask members of the Asheville Choral Society. When ACS wrapped up a strategic planning process earlier this year, group leadership determined the company was falling short of its mission.
“When we identified our core values as an organization, we knew that we would need to take concrete steps to ensure that we were truly honoring our value of diversity and inclusion,” says Laurel Ahrnsbrak, executive director of ACS. “We live our values of excellence, music literacy and vocal artistry every day, but we knew we would need to take some risks and learn a lot to live this stated value of diversity.”
To better address that mission, The Deepness of Blue is a celebration of African-American music and poetry. The concert, scheduled for Friday and Saturday, Oct. 12 at 13, at Central United Methodist Church, will include pieces like “Signs of the Judgment,” arranged by Mark Butler; and “Listen to the Lambs,” by R. Nathaniel Dett. The event is anchored by its namesake, “The Deepness of Blue,” which is a five-movement piece with music by William Averitt and words by Langston Hughes, a prolific poet and major figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
ACS singer and board member Peter Landis considers the night a departure from previous performances. “On one level is the music itself: It’s really exciting and different,” he says, noting that members will be singing music almost exclusively by African-American composers. “On another, it goes with our desire to be more relevant to the entire Asheville community.”
But inclusivity takes legwork. After recognizing the need to support all area residents regardless of skin color, ACS leadership teamed up with racial justice trainers from the YWCA of Asheville to unpack how the local choral society might move toward an anti-racist model.
“We learned about the history of race and racism in Asheville, and how racism shows up in our daily lives,” says Ahrnsbrak. “We have since had more conversations about how ACS can be an authentically welcoming organization, not just in name or spirit, but in practice, so all people who love to sing will feel welcomed to join. We realize that we have to start with us: our leadership, our membership, our concerts.”
The Deepness of Blue signals intentionality, says Ahrnsbrak. Though the chorus has several members of color, ACS has invited singers from other local choruses and African-American musicians, including soloists and a pianist, to participate. ACS has also recruited a master class clinician, Kathy Bullock, who will bring her expertise in African-American music — specifically that which has roots in Appalachia.
Ahrnsbrak believes the variety of voices will “better tell the story of this music.” But in many ways, The Deepness of Blue also informs the organizational story of ACS.
Established in 1977, ACS began as a handful of singers dedicated to infusing Asheville’s arts scene with song. Today, the group has more than 100 auditioned singers, ages 16 to 80-plus, and is led by artistic director and UNC Asheville professor Melodie Galloway. Since its beginning, ACS has been applauded for its high-quality, versatile performances. But the society is also recognized for its outward-facing values. On community, the mission statement reads that members “affirm the importance of music in highlighting our shared humanity.” And on inclusivity, they should “seek to increase the diversity of age, ethnicity and socioeconomic status” within the chorus to reflect the surrounding area.
October’s concert is an avenue for realizing these goals while also honoring 41 seasons of commitment to the Asheville community, says Ahrnsbrak. But that’s just the beginning.
“We have a stated value about diversity and inclusion, and raising up composers of color is a way that we can live this value out loud for our members and our audience,” says Ahrnsbrak. “We will be living our value of diversity and inclusion more boldly moving forward, and there are infinite ways that this intentionality might show up, so stay tuned.”
WHAT: The Deepness of Blue
WHERE: Central United Methodist Church, 27 Church St., ashevillechoralsociety.org
WHEN: Friday, Oct. 12, 7 p.m., and Saturday, Oct. 13, 4 p.m. $10-$25