California Festival Builds Community

Thursday, Feb 22, 2024
Juilliard Journal
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This image features a group of five individuals posing together for a photo. They all appear to be cheerful and are standing in front of a backdrop that includes the word "Juilliard" in large, stylized letters, suggesting that they are at a special event.
Director Ava DuVernay (center) with students Aditi Prakash, Miles Goosby, Messiah Ahmed, and Jory Lane

By Aditi Prakash

In November, 14 Juilliard musicians performed in the inaugural California Festival. Juilliard’s portion of this statewide celebration of contemporary music was a collaboration with award-winning film director Ava DuVernay and Kris Bowers (BM ’10, MM ’12, jazz studies), who has scored several of her films, including the latest one, Origin. The program was designed and curated by Bowers and Arnhold Creative Associate at Large Nadia Sirota (BM ’04, MM ’06, viola; Academy ’08) to reflect Bowers’ musical journey as he composed the score. In addition to featuring two student string quartets and a jazz sextet as well as some alumni musicians, the California Festival concerts were also a collaboration with DuVernay’s creative collective, ARRAY, and took place in her venue of the same name.

Origin, which premiered in September, is based on Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. It challenges our cultural perspective on race and class through the idea of interconnectedness. To find inspiration for the score, Bowers created a playlist exploring this theme, and he used the playlist as a springboard for one of the three concerts we gave. DuVernay told the audience before the concert that ARRAY “works around the idea of narrative change; the stories that we tell each other affect the way we treat each other.” All of the repertoire in the concert—which also featured Bowers premiering some of the Origin music—added to the narrative of some sort. Some were by Terrence Blanchard (b. 1962), a jazz trumpeter and film composer who has been a great inspiration to Bowers. We also performed String Quartet No. 3 (1945) by Simon Laks (1901–81), who became music director of the Auschwitz orchestra while he was imprisoned there. Different Trains (1988) by Steve Reich (’61, composition) is an emotional confrontation of an imagined alternate history. As a child, Reich and his family took trains across the U.S. in the early 1940s, and in this piece, he imagines the reality of a boy taking trains in World War II Europe.

As performers, we are tasked with reconciling the emotional and physical demands of a piece, and this project carried a unique responsibility for us as musicians. The two newly formed student string quartets were asked to learn multiple contemporary quartet movements of wide-ranging styles, and we also performed works alongside the Artist Diploma jazz ensemble. Technically, we attempted to learn and master new musical languages as a collective, giving particular attention to using the often contrasting techniques to effectively convey the emotional weight of the music programmed.

Part of the journey of working on this music was developing trust as we performed together. In rehearsals, we all found points where we had to root ourselves in each other’s music. There were moments where I chose to let go and let my colleagues lead me through a section because they seemed to understand the rhythmic and musical flow in a way that I could easily latch onto while still being able to freely express myself. I only had to open my ears or gaze upward for a second before one of them reacted to my desire to connect. To be able to trust my colleagues in that way during the pressure of performing created an energy I have never experienced before.

This performance was successful for reasons that I find inspiring and exciting. Bringing together alumni
and students, classical and jazz, film and music, East and West—there was an interconnectedness in the program that also linked audience and artist. When working in a space that is rooted in the idea that expression through art can both create belonging and start conversations, the artists have the room to authentically express their voices. I found myself surrounded by colleagues who care deeply about changing narratives and encouraging interest in the art we are passionate about. It’s vital that we as musicians feel a sense of community with our colleagues—when the music and the venue encourage that, it can give us a power that goes beyond our usual onstage adrenaline rush and lingers past the moment of performance. I feel that I have witnessed the raw power of music to build community and support humanity.

Aditi Prakash is a first-year master’s viola student