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PRIMER | Damien Sneed Brings 'We Shall Overcome' To Toronto

By Brian Chang on January 9, 2019

Damien Sneed (Photo courtesy IMG Artists)
In celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, pianist Damien Sneed brings the Toronto Mass Choir and a cohort of gospel soloists to Koerner Hall for the only Canadian stop on a 36-city tour. (Photo courtesy of IMG Artists)

The Royal Conservatory of Music presents We Shall Overcome: A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Featuring Damien Sneed and the Toronto Mass Choir. Part of the RCM Trailblazers series. January 13, 7 p.m. Koerner Hall, Toronto. Visit www.rcmusic.com for ticket information.

300,000 people marched on Washington in August of 1963. In front of the Lincoln Memorial, the assembled masses sang “We Shall Overcome.” The iconic standard became one of the anthems of the Civil Rights movement in the US. Music, throughout the period, was a powerful group action of non-violence and creative power. A powerful history of music and social change enriches the stories we tell about that history. There is no finer way to honour that history than to sing, and continue singing.

Koerner Hall opens its doors to a concert unlike any other. Damien Sneed is a powerhouse in the classical, jazz, blues, music theatre, and gospel fabric of the US. Sneed is one of those prodigious musicians you need to Google to see his extensive set of abilities and wide presence. He’s all over Youtube with some epic breakdowns of his musical styles and global performances.

A prolific recording artist,  he’s currently serving as the Houston Grand Opera Community Program (HGOco) Music Director, Cover Conductor, and Composer in Residence where he is writing an Opera based on the life of Marian Anderson, the black singer who famously performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. He also has several graduate degrees and has appointments at several major institutions including Juilliard.

The Royal Conservatory brings Sneed along with vocalists Chenee Campbell, Markita Knight, Ayana George, Anitra McKinney, and Quinn Brown. On instruments are Mark Clark, John Matthew Clark, and Marquéz Cassidy. All of these musicians have worked with Sneed over the years. Many were part of his run as Music Director of the New York City CityParks Foundation 2015 Summerstage performances of “The Wiz: A Celebration in Dance and Music.”

RCM Executive Director of Performance, Mervon Mehta is proud to bring these musicians to the Koerner Hall stage. “We have quite an array of possible artists from which to choose for each season,” he shares. “It then becomes a balancing act of the right mix of genres, of inviting artists from various traditions, of finding community partners etc.” Toronto is a musical city unlike any other, with a blend of cultures from around the world and many of the musical traditions they bring. Toronto is also a thriving gospel musical hub in Canada.

“I saw Damien Sneed and his ensemble at Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem a year ago and immediately invited them to Toronto,” says Mehta. “When [Sneed] asked if we had a local choir to add to the concert I reached out to Karen Burke and the Toronto Mass Choir, the best in town. It is going to be a night like we have never experienced in Koerner Hall.”

These concerts commemorate the 90th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the 35th since Martin Luther King day became an American holiday. Sneed and the musicians are embarking on a 36-city tour with this concert. Toronto marks the third stop.

In the official press release for the tour Sneed says, “I look forward to honouring the life and legacy of the great civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., in my upcoming tour as well as many other great artists and public figures who used their voices and their art to let the world know that one day we will truly overcome.”

History, music, and live performance will blend in a beautiful mix led by Sneed’s masterful understanding, interaction, and expression of civil rights, sound, and oratory. Throughout the performance, recordings of Dr. King’s voice will bring history into the present.

These performances will also be memorable for the Toronto Mass Choir. “The choir has singers ranging in age from 20-60, and so many of our members remember the impact of Martin Luther King,” shares Burke. “Those who are part of the African diaspora in the Americas and anyone who believes in the themes of justice, peace and racial equality are inspired by the legacy of Martin Luther King and the Toronto Mass Choir is excited to be part of this monumental event in Toronto.” The choir will be featured mostly in the second half of the programme with Sneed’s arrangements of songs by the likes of Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis.

Burke looks forward to this performance. She says: “the audience will be treated to an international gathering of Gospel artists, powerful songs created by a master of composition and the opportunity to sing and clap along! Damien is a well-respected African-American artist, composer, arranger in the Gospel idiom and beyond, and the honour of working with him and his esteemed colleagues is an absolute joy and pleasure.”

In one of the featured arrangements by Damien, the Wynton Marsalis chart has the Choir sing “Everyone has a place in the House of God.” On January 13, that house will be Koerner Hall; grab a seat.

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