"A More Convenient Season" Shares Birmingham's Story
By Matt Windsor
Alys Stephens Center (ASC) in the world premiere of composer Yotam Haber's "A More Convenient Season."On September 21, Birmingham's past will engage its present in a unique conversation. For 75 minutes, the words of civil rights legends and footsoldiers, FBI agents and Klansmen, will echo through UAB's
The three-movement musical work, commissioned by philanthropist Tom Blount and produced by the ASC, caps Birmingham's commemoration of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in September 1963.
Speeches, oral history transcripts, and FBI interviews supply the text of a multi-faceted work that combines the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, a chorus from dozens of local choirs, electronic music, and a documentary film. (The work's title comes from a line in Martin Luther King's famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail.") The ambitious project might best be described as an opera, says Haber. "There are no sets or costumes, but in every other respect, this is an opera."
"A More Convenient Season," Saturday, September 21 - 8 p.m.
Jemison Concert Hall, Alys Stephens Center
Book online or call (205) 975-2787.
Tickets: $10 with promo code "positivepeace"
"A More Convenient Season" is the first world premiere in the ASC's 17-year history—a dramatic gesture that is "UAB's gift to Birmingham," says Theresa Bruno, chair of the ASC's corporate board. For Haber, a project that began as a 15-minute string quartet has been his constant companion for two years, evolving into what he says is "the most meaningful work I have ever made."
Voices from the Past
The words came first. Haber, an up-and-coming composer based in New York, met Blount in Rome, where Haber premiered a piece focusing on the music and history of that city's Jewish community. Blount invited Haber to Montgomery, where he met with Morris Dees, the legendary director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and toured the capital's landmarks of the Civil Rights Movement. "But then I came to Birmingham and visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and that resonated with me in a completely different way," Haber says.
Following his official commission, Haber immersed himself in the institute's archives, reading thousands of pages of transcripts from FBI files and other sources, listening to oral histories, and interviewing "civil rights heroes, scholars, and writers" during nearly a dozen trips to Birmingham, he says. "It was a year and a half before I wrote a single note. It took that long to realize what my own path into the story would be." Telling that story, Haber realized, would require not only the Alabama Symphony Orchestra but also a large choir and a filmmaker to create the work's visuals, which incorporate home movies depicting life in Birmingham in the era.
Birmingham's history suffuses the music of "A More Convenient Season" as well as its lyrics. In one movement, for instance, the percussion section thunders in reference to the city's steelmaking past. "This is a city founded on metal, and in a very abstract way, metal becomes a very important part of the piece," Haber says.
While Haber labored in the archives and in his Brooklyn studio, Bruno—often joined by UAB president Ray Watts, M.D.—was visiting Birmingham's business and cultural leaders, raising the support necessary for this project of operatic scale.
"Engaging an entire orchestra for rehearsals and performance, printing and publishing the score, creating the multimedia—there is so much involved," says Bruno. "I don't think anyone in Birmingham has ever ventured into an undertaking of this scope. When you desire to innovate in the arts to this magnitude, it is impossible to do it alone." The result, she says, is more than worth it: "It is music for the 21st century unlike anything I have ever heard."
Audiences on the West Coast will have a chance to hear "A More Convenient Season" next year. It is scheduled to have a second premiere in early 2014 at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theatre in Los Angeles.
"I can't stress how grateful I am to Tom and Theresa for making this happen," says Haber. "It is so rare today for a composer to be asked to write a work that takes up an entire evening. These days, you are lucky if you are asked to write a seven-minute piece. It's a sign that UAB really cares about contemporary music and that they know its power."
Call to Action
While Haber insists that his work is not about "solving any problem," he does wish that "A More Convenient Season" will spark reflection—and discussion—wherever it is performed. "This piece was written for and about Birmingham, but it is also about a call to action in the face of injustice, which is a universal ideal," Haber says. "This isn't a story that takes you from point A to point B. It is filled with unanswered questions and mystery. I would hope that at the end of the work, people go home and it is the beginning of a new conversation."