The darkest years of the pandemic are behind us, but their memory lingers. The sudden shutdown of public life was one of many upheavals that threatened to tear apart the social fabric. Other issues also took center stage in the form of protests and riots over cruel acts of injustice.
But turbulent times can bring about positive changes. Some arts institutions undertook an honest reappraisal of their purpose and programming choices after the events of 2020-21. Underrepresented artistic voices were finally given the opportunity to be heard more widely, and increased access was given to audiences who customarily never set foot in a theater or concert hall. Technology allowed everyone with a screen and Wi-Fi to participate.
The Philharmonic Society of Orange County went through such a transformation. Formed in 1954, it’s one of Orange County’s oldest arts presenters, regularly bringing in top-name classical musicians and some of the world’s best orchestras. But in 2020, Philharmonic President and Artistic Director Tommy Phillips realized that change was in the air, and his organization needed to respond. The result was the Triumph Over Adversity Festival. This year’s three-event festival takes place on February 21, 23 and 24.
“The festival began in our darkest pandemic time,” Phillips said. “It really evolved out of a need for a platform for traditionally under-represented voices to be heard.”
The first Triumph Over Adversity Festival was presented in 2021, curated by musicians and brothers Anthony and Demarre McGill. The idea grew out of a series of conversations Phillips had with the McGills, with whom he is close friends.
Triumph Over Adversity Festival
Recital No. 1: Mass
When: 7 p.m. Feb. 21
Where: Orange County Museum of Art, 3333 Avenue of the Arts, Costa Mesa
When: 1 p.m. Feb. 23
Where: Orange County Museum of Art
Creative Workshop Showcase
When: 7 p.m. Feb. 24
Where: Orange County School of the Arts, 1010 N Main St., Santa Ana
“It was a project we were envisioning, and we decided that this should be the platform — how we can best reach the right audience right now,” Phillips said. “We weren’t doing public concerts at the time. We created this festival with the hope that each year we would feature a different artistic director with their own voice and insight about what we as a society should be talking about right now.” The first festival was streamed free of charge to anyone with internet access.
The Philharmonic Society describes the festival as “a multi-day series of concerts and educational and community outreach offerings advocating for social change on and beyond classical music’s stages, spotlighting musicians as well as composers from marginalized communities.” The events are live now, but still free.
A Powerful Performer
The artistic director of this year’s festival is distinguished bass-baritone Davóne Tines, Musical America’s 2022 Vocalist of the Year. He’s a boundary-pushing experimenter whose taste spans a diverse repertoire, from early music to new works. Tines likes to explore urgent social issues in captivating music that combines opera, art song, contemporary classical music, spirituals, gospel and songs of protest.
Tines is interpreting the name of the festival in his own unique way. “To me, the triumph over adversity is about the individual triumphing over their own personal adversity, whatever that might be,” he said. “Some people might (interpret) that it has some sort of social justice implication. Maybe that is true, but I’m more interested in how those larger ideas of adversity are actually experienced on an individual level.”
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The main musical event, which takes place Feb. 21 at the Orange County Museum of Art, is Tines’ work, Recital No. 1: Mass. It’s a wild musical amalgam: recontextualized Bach arias, arrangements of spirituals by Tyshawn Sorey, Moses Hogan and Margaret Bonds, as well as a powerful work, Prelude to The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc by Julius Eastman, a Black composer who died in obscurity in 1990 but whose genre-defying music is being increasingly played and admired.
Anchoring the work is a setting of parts of the Mass by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw. “I asked my dear friend Caroline to write a miniature Mass that would kind of serve as a structure that I would then fill in,” Tines said. “I asked her to set five different parts of the Mass text and for the movements to be miniaturized. I told her that all of the movements needed to be for solo voice, and they needed to all be a minute or less.”
Tines’ unorthodox approach to performance emanates from his belief that musical boundaries and preconceptions need to be rethought and rearranged. “I think that we’re in a place where classical music needs to be a little bit more specific about how it connects to individuals, whether that’s the actual artist performing or the people actually viewing the concert,” he said.
Critics and audiences are intrigued by Tines’ bold and unusual programming and performance choices. New Yorker critic Alex Ross commends Mass’ ability to “traverse multiple centuries and worlds” while grounding audiences with “the taut resonance of one voice: a timbre at once grand and fraught, potent and vulnerable.”
As a performer, “Devon is powerful,” said Phillips, who saw him at the 2022 Ojai Music Festival. “There’s no doubt about his artistic capability and his musicianship. He brings a presence to the stage that is inviting but at the same time, you know who’s in charge. He does it all in a beautiful way that brings the listener into the performance like nobody I’ve ever seen.”
On Feb. 23, Tines participates in a roundtable discussion with Phillips, Orange County Museum of Art CEO and Director Heidi Zuckerman and UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts Dean Tiffany Lopez.
“The central topic is what does it mean to create art,” Phillips said. “We will be talking about this from multiple perspectives: from the artist’s point of view, from a curatorial standpoint, and from the point of view of a dean who is empowering students to create art. We’ll discuss where those lines cross and converge.”
The festival concludes with a Creative Workshop Showcase on Feb. 24 that features works created and performed by students from Orange County School of the Arts’ Classical Voice and Popular Music Conservatories. The students workshopped remotely with Tines, delving into the workings of the creative process over several months.
“We’ve been meeting fairly regularly online,” Tines said. “It’s an opportunity for me to walk through some ideas of creative process and share some of the work that I’ve been doing at Harvard with students who’ve been thinking about the interdisciplinary storytelling process.”
Phillips said future Triumph Over Adversity festivals will feature artists representing other communities not traditionally associated with the concert hall. The festival has prompted his organization to consider its programming philosophy in a new light. “I think it has really challenged us to look at our season more holistically and to ensure that we’re not simply highlighting one week or one artist and saying, ‘Here is our checkmark to our diversity in the season.’ It’s ensuring we have a more broad representation of society at large.”
Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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