Challenge the Stats spotlights musicians of color at Juneteenth concert, ‘String Awakening’ – WABE

Challenge the Stats will perform a celebratory concert for Juneteenth tomorrow evening at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. The organization empowers classical musicians of color through concerts and workshops. The Juneteenth music event, “String Awakening,” features a BIPOC orchestra of professional and student musicians. Angelica Hairston, founder and executive director of Challenge the Stats, and Verena Lucía Anders, artistic director and conductor for Challenge The Stats’ Juneteenth Orchestra, joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom.

Interview highlights:

Why Challenge the Stats was created in 2016:

“I was studying at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto — very, very cold, very different from Atlanta — and while I was there, there was a lot that was happening and coming to the surface in the United States, and in particular, the murder of Trayvon Martin happened while I was doing my undergraduate degree,” recalled Hairston. “I remember, as a harpist, practicing all of this classical music that I adored that I loved, and I also saw what was happening to and towards African-American people in the United States.”

She went on, “I really had to reconcile what it meant for me to be a classical musician who adores this art form, and also an African-American person myself, someone who was from this community that was really directly being targeted in my own home country. And that was the time when I started … to explore what it would look like for classical music to have a voice in the areas of justice for communities of color.”

Composers to be celebrated in “String Awakening:”

“I would like to take a second to highlight Jesse Montgomery, whose works are beginning to be performed by major orchestras. She’s just such an inspiration, and her music is always very refreshing. And in this particular piece, she wrote this for the Sphinx Virtuosi, part of the Sphinx Ensemble in the Sphinx Organization, which empowers Black and Latinx classical musicians on the stage,” said Anders. “She’s really bringing out all of the dynamics, being very imaginative in a musical way, but also really catering to the strengths of the ensemble and the strengths of these particular players.”

“We also have, of course, ‘An Elegy (A Cry from the Grave)’ by Carlos Simon, which I think we all felt should be part of this program,” Anders continued. “And we have a couple of ‘Novelletten’ by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, very fun pieces, and I wanted to include them too, to highlight a historic Black composer who was really trained in Europe but began to be aware of his own cultural heritage and bring that into his music. And we will be ending the program with a piece by Guido López Gavilánwho is a Cuban composer, and it really brings together both the classical ensemble mixed in with all of the wonderful, colorful rhythms and dance moves from the Cuban culture.”

Hairston’s harp accompanied by ASO’s up-and-coming:

“I wanted to make sure we had some harp included in our string orchestra, and one of the pieces that I will be performing is by Connor Chee, and that work is really powerful and poignant for me. Over the time of 2020, when we were all kind of stuck in the house, I really started to look at the ways that Native American communities and African-American communities had such a shared struggle for freedom in this country,” said Hairston. “It was really powerful to talk with Connor and to collaborate with him. I’m excited to be performing this piece alongside the student musicians, many of whom are coming from the Talent Development Program of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.”

Challenge the Stats will present “String Awakening” performed by their Juneteenth Orchestra on June 18 at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. More information is at

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