In November 2019, the UC College-Conservatory of Music Wind Symphony presented a special concert to commemorate the 50th anniversary year of the Stonewall Uprising. Exclusively featuring works by LGBTQ+ composers, the performance showcased Omar Thomas’ A Mother of a Revolution, which is available to watch online.
A Mother of a Revolution celebrates the bravery of trans women, particularly Marsha “Pay it No Mind” Johnson, a pioneering leader of the LGBTQ+ rights movement and Stonewall Uprising. The Stonewall Uprising began in the early hours of June 28, 1969, when New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, an LGBTQ+ bar and, today, a National Historic Landmark. This raid sparked a series of riots and protests that served as a significant catalyst for the country’s modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. Pride Month, celebrated each year in the month of June, honors the Stonewall Uprising as well as the impact that LGBTQ+ individuals have had on history locally, nationally and internationally.
CCM Wind Symphony music director and conductor Kevin Michael Holzman looks to find relevant anniversaries of important events to share with students and the community, which inspired him to program the concert of all LGBTQ+ works. Other works featured in the concert included Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, Higdon’s Mysterium, Clay Mettens’ Un-Masqued and Corigliano’s Mr. Tambourine Man.
“The contributions to music (and all of the fine arts) from LGBTQ+ artists are truly incredible; despite this fact, they are so rarely recognized explicitly,” says Holzman, CCM Interim Division Head of Ensembles and Conducting. “Many of these artists suffered tremendously and were treated as outcasts socially and professionally, particularly in the years prior to the turn of the millennium. An equal or greater number never felt safe coming out due to discrimination.”
The LGBTQ+ rights movement has seen significant success in recent years. Major milestones include when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is legal in 2015 and ruled that existing federal law forbids job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender status in a landmark case on June 15, 2020. Despite these victories, hate and prejudice towards the LGBTQ+ community remain prevalent in many parts of the U.S. and world.
CCM Wind Symphony’s performance was sponsored by the CCM Harmony Fund, which supports artistic works that fight hate and prejudice through the performing arts. This Fund was created based on the belief that the arts inspire imaginative thinking, encourage conversations, present contrasting attitudes and help us examine our own viewpoints. For the month of June, Eat Well Celebrations and Feasts in Newport, Kentucky, is selling pride cupcakes and a portion of the proceeds will benefit the CCM Harmony Fund.
“I think it’s our job as music directors to recognize the powerful voice we have to amplify composers and musicians, particularly those who have been historically underrepresented,” Holzman says. “Our students at CCM represent so many diverse backgrounds and cultures, and it’s my responsibility to make sure they feel seen and heard. The first step, in my opinion, is to program works by composers with whom they identify. I also think it’s important that our audiences also feel seen and heard, and can relate to not only the music we perform but to the artists they see on stage and the composers on the program.”
Holzman has pledged that he will continue to program more works by female composers, Black composers and composers coming from other underrepresented populations in the future. Concert programming is just the start, though, and Holzman has formed a working group of graduate students to identify other ways to partner with the Black community and Cincinnati Public Schools.
Holzman first met A Mother of a Revolution composer Omar Thomas two years ago, when he programed Thomas’ Of Our New Day Begun on his first concert as Director of Wind Studies at CCM. Of Our New Day Begun honors the nine people who were murdered in a tragic mass shooting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (commonly referred to as “Mother Emanuel”) in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015.
“I knew I had to get to know the composer who wrote the work to be able to do it justice, and it turned into a great friendship,” Holzman says. “I’ll be a champion of Omar’s music and voice forever.”
About Omar Thomas
Described as “elegant, beautiful, sophisticated, intense and crystal clear in emotional intent,” the music of Omar Thomas continues to move listeners everywhere it is performed. Born to Guyanese parents in Brooklyn, New York in 1984, Thomas moved to Boston in 2006 to pursue a Master of Music in Jazz Composition at the New England Conservatory of Music after studying Music Education at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is the protégé of lauded composers and educators Ken Schaphorst and Frank Carlberg, and has studied under multiple Grammy-winning composer and bandleader Maria Schneider.
Hailed by Herbie Hancock as showing “great promise as a new voice in the further development of jazz in the future,” educator, arranger and award-winning composer Thomas has created music extensively in the contemporary jazz ensemble idiom. It was while completing his Master of Music degree that he was appointed the position of Assistant Professor of Harmony at Berklee College of Music at the surprisingly young age of 23. He was awarded the ASCAP Young Jazz Composers Award in 2008, and invited by the ASCAP Association to perform his music in their highly exclusive JaZzCap Showcase, held in New York City. In 2012, Thomas was named the Boston Music Award’s “Jazz Artist of the Year.” Following his Berklee tenure, he served on faculty of the Music Theory department at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Composition at the University of Texas at Austin.
Thomas’ music has been performed in concert halls the world over. He has been commissioned to create works in both jazz and classical styles. His work has been performed by such diverse groups as the Eastman New Jazz Ensemble, the San Francisco and Boston Gay Mens’ Choruses, and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, in addition to a number of the country’s top collegiate music ensembles. Thomas has had a number of celebrated singers perform over his arrangements, including Stephanie Mills, Yolanda Adams, Nona Hendryx, BeBe Winans, Kenny Lattimore, Marsha Ambrosius, Sheila E., Raul Midon, Leela James, Dionne Warwick and Chaka Khan. His work is featured on Dianne Reeves’s Grammy Award-winning album, “Beautiful Life.”
Thomas’ first album, “I AM,” debuted at No. 1 on iTunes Jazz Charts and peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard Traditional Jazz Albums Chart. His second release, ” We Will Know: An LGBT Civil Rights Piece in Four Movements,” has been hailed by Grammy Award-wining drummer, composer and producer Terri Lyne Carrington as being a “thought provoking, multi-layered masterpiece” which has “put him in the esteemed category of great artists.” “We Will Know” was awarded two OUTMusic Awards, including “Album of the Year.” For this work, Thomas was named the 2014 Lavender Rhino Award recipient by the History Project, acknowledging his work as an up-and-coming activist in the Boston LGBTQ community. Says Terri Lyne: “Omar Thomas will prove to be one of the more important composer/arrangers of his time.”
Feature image at top: CCM Wind Symphony in rehearsal. Design/Mikki Graff. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services.