The Harlem Chamber Players To Celebrate Its 15th With Black Music Month Opera

May 3, 2023

 The Harlem Chamber Players, Founding Executive and Artistic Director Liz Player, will mark its 15th Anniversary and Black Music Month with a musical extravaganza Harlem Songfest II

They will be celebrating Black opera singers and the music of Black composers, including women, on Friday, June 9, at 7 p.m. at Miller Theatre at Columbia University (2960 Broadway at West 116th Street in Harlem, NY). Multifaceted artist Damien Sneed will serve as music director and conductor for the event, which will also feature arias from the European canon.

The special concert is hosted by WQXR radio personality and Harlem Chamber Players (HCP) Artistic Advisor Terrance McKnight and presented in association with the Manhattan School of Music. Tickets for Harlem Songfest II — ranging from $20-$40, with $50 VIP tickets — are on sale at here. They can also be purchased by calling 212-854-7799 (Wed-Fri from 2 p.m.-6 p.m.).

Soprano Janinah Burnett, soprano Jasmine Muhammad, and baritone Kenneth Overton — currently on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera —and tenor Martin Bakari and mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford will join HCP’s 45-piece orchestra for the performance. 

Harlem Songfest II builds on the success of the HCP’s 2018 Harlem Songfest, which featured arias solely from the European canon. The sequel concert features arias, spirituals and songs by Black composers, including women, as well as classics from European composers Georges Bizet, Gustave Charpentier, Gaetano Donizetti, George Frideric Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Richard Strauss and Giuseppe Verdi and America‘s favorite, George Gershwin. The program will include the works of Black composers, including He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands by Margaret Bonds (arranged by Sneed); Voodoo Queen aria, by Harlem Renaissance’s Harry Lawrence Freeman, a work the HCP helped revive from 87 years of obscurity in a 2015 staging; the Overture to Tremonisha by Scott Joplin (arranged by Sneed); There is a Balm in Gilead from Spiritual Sketches by Sneed; and the 4thof July Speech by Dorothy Rudd Moore (arranged by Sneed), a piece inspired by Frederick Douglass’s renowned 1852 speech “What to the Slave is Fourth of July.” My Son, My Child by Emmett Till by the 89-year-old composer Mary Watkins will also be performed.


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“The Black community and the Harlem community especially adores and appreciates singers, and The Harlem Chamber Players is determined to give them what they want at this concert, which will showcase some incredible voices and stars of opera stages everywhere,” said Ms. Player, who heads up the ethnically diverse classical orchestra. “We are centering the Black artists who have traditionally been marginalized in classical music.”

The concert is being presented with the generous support of the National Endowment for the Arts, Howard Gilman Foundation, M&T Charitable Foundation, West Harlem Development Corporation, Columbia Community Service, New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the Mosaic Fund.

The artists

Praised by Opera News as “vocally charismatic” and a “golden tenor,” Martin Bakari has given acclaimed performances in opera, musical theater, oratorio, and art song in major venues in cities throughout the world including NYC, Chicago, Washington DC, Atlanta, Seattle, Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Tel Aviv, Bari, and Matsumoto. www.martinbakari.com

Mezzo soprano Lucia Bradford has starred in Bizet’s La Tragedie de Carmen, Puccini’s Suor Angelica, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, William Grant Still’s Troubled Island, Mary Watkin’s Emmett Till and Nathaniel Dett’s The Ordering of Moses. Lucia performs many genres including contemporary opera, jazz, gospel and blues. 

Visionary performance artist Janinah Burnett is a principal artist at the Metropolitan Opera. She is a versatile singing actor, musician, writer, and educator. Burnett’s Broadway credits include Carlotta in the closing cast of Phantom of the Opera. Her albums include Love Color of Your Butterfly, from her record label ‘Clazz Records’ featuring innovative arrangements of opera, spirituals, jazz and more. 

Lyric soprano Jasmine Muhammad is a multi-genre vocalist, bridging the gaps between the opera house, harmonic space of background vocals, and intimate recitals. Her work spans traditional opera repertoire to tackling new works, from The Metropolitan Opera to Hollywood Bowl. This season she joins The Metropolitan Opera chorus for their full season. 

Internationally renowned and Grammy Award-winning baritone, Kenneth Overton made his Welsh National Opera Debut last fall. Kenneth has sung at the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera and this season will return to the Kennedy Center, David Geffen Hall and Carnegie Hall. His sophomore solo album A Bright Tomorrow, debuted in the top 10 on Billboard Classical Crossover Charts. 

Damien Sneed (conductor/musical director) is a pianist, vocalist, organist, composer, conductor, producer, arranger, recording artist, instrumentalist, and arts educator whose work spans multiple genres. He has worked with musical legends including the late Aretha Franklin and Jessye Norman (featured on Norman’s final recording, Bound for The Promised Land), Wynton Marsalis, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Ashford & Simpson, J’Nai Bridges, Lawrence Brownlee, and more. Sneed has served as music director for several Grammy Award-winning gospel artists. He is a 2014 Sphinx Medal of Excellence recipient, a 2020 Dove Award winner, and a 2021 NAACP Image Award winner for his work as a featured producer and writer on the Clark Sisters’ recently released album, The Return. Sneed is currently a faculty member of the Manhattan School of Music and an Artist-in-Residence at Michigan State University. During the 2018-2019 season, he served as music director, composer in residence, and cover conductor for the staff of the Houston Grand Opera, who commissioned him to compose a new chamber opera about the life of Marian Anderson, Marian’s Song, which had its world premiere in 2020. Other commissions include the original score for Testament, a contemporary response to the 60th Anniversary of Revelations, for Alvin Ailey Dance Theater’s first virtual season; and a chamber opera, The Tongue & The Lash, for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) in 2021. He is currently commissioned to compose his fourth opera, a reimagined adaptation of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, which premieres May 20 to open OTSL’s season.

The Harlem Chamber Players is an ethnically diverse collective of professional musicians dedicated to bringing high-caliber, affordable, accessible live music to people in the Harlem community and beyond. Founded in 2008, the orchestra annually presents a rich season of formal live concerts, indoors, outdoors, and online. It also promotes arts inclusion and equal access to the arts, bringing live music to underserved communities and promoting shared community arts and cultural engagement. Artists-in-residence at the Harlem School of the Arts, The Harlem Chamber Players have presented culturally relevant programs at numerous venues throughout the city and collaborated with many other arts organizations. The orchestra has been featured on WQXR as well as The Greene Space at WQXR and WNYC. The Harlem Chamber Players have also been covered in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The GuardianMusical America and on NPR, NBC and Here and Now on ABC. The group was awarded the 2022 Sam Miller Award for the Performing Arts from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

Liz Player (founding executive and artistic producer) founded The Harlem Chamber Players in 2008 with the late violist Charles Dalton. Inspired by the late Janet Wolfe, long-time patron of musicians of color and the founder and executive director of the NYC Housing Symphony Orchestra, Ms. Player dedicated herself to continuing the legacy of Wolfe in creating opportunities for musicians of color, particularly Black and Brown classically trained musicians, who are to this day grossly underrepresented in classical music. With a background in industries far removed from classical music, Ms. Player was able to leverage her unique skill set to build The Harlem Chamber Players from the ground up. After earning her first bachelor’s degree in computer science, she worked as a programmer/analyst for more than eight years before making a return to music. Ms. Player has also worked in philanthropy, marketing and events planning and has served on various panels in New York City, including grant panels for the New York State Council on the Arts, the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, and panels for “Diversifying Orchestral Music in New York State” convened by NYSCA. Player In 2022, Musical America named Ms. Player among the 32 Top Professionals of the Year. Ms. Player also produced the critically acclaimed, sold-out performance of the rarely performed R. Nathaniel Detts’ oratorio The Ordering of Moses, as part of The Harlem Renaissance 100.   

For more information on the Harlem Chamber Players, visit https://www.harlemchamberplayers.org 

Photo credit: 1) Janinah Burnett by John Keon. 2) The Harlem Chamber Players.

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