Dr. Eugene Rogers (Director of EXIGENCE) and Alyssa Morar (Eugene Concert Choir) discuss the upcoming performance Black is Beautiful which will be performed at the Hult Center on May 7, 2023. Learn more about this collaborative concert of social justice with deeply intense repertoire and gorgeous music throughout.
The following text is a transcript from the Dr. Eugene Rogers episode of the Hult Center Podcast, recorded on March 24, 2023.
Daniel Olbrych, Hult Center: You are listening to the Hult Center Podcast, and on this episode we are talking about the upcoming Eugene Concert Choir performance Black Is Beautiful, which will be at the Hult Center on May 7th. Today I’m joined by Dr. Eugene Rogers, founding director of Exigence Vocal Ensemble, and Alyssa Morar, who is the marketing and Public relations Director from the Eugene Concert Choir.
Alyssa Morar: Hello, Dr. Eugene Rogers is joining us and we are so excited and fortunate to have you Eugene, joining the Eugene Concert Choir for Black is Beautiful. Can you tell the listeners about who you are and your musical background?
Eugene Rogers: Hi, good afternoon or good morning or whatever it is. Well, first of all, thank you so much for this. Exigence is so excited about being a part of this historic concert and I just love the title Black is Beautiful and Diane Retallack and her vision and inviting us to work with Eugene Concert Choir is a huge honor for us. My background is pretty broad, so I’m going to, I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version of that background and say that currently I’m the founding director of Exigence and we began in 2018. Exigence’s name means a great need and when I have always been affiliated and connected to the Sphinx Organization, who’s our, our mother organization, if you will, that was built, gosh, that was created over 25 years ago for mainly orchestral players through competitions, through bringing groups together, individuals together from the black and Latinx community with the idea of fostering more diversity in the arts and specifically creating a pipeline to support our major orchestras, which often don’t reflect our country.
After really being so interested and connected to their mission, I felt like vocally we had a similar issue on the professional level and reached out to the Sphinx Organization about just creating, getting a support for a new group that I wanted to start. And they said to me, “No, your vision is so aligned with ours. Let’s partner,” and therefore Exigence was born to also celebrate diversity in their arts. And our group is made of composers, professional singers, conductors, all really uniting together to celebrate this diversity in the arts at the highest level possible. And that’s one of my jobs and groups that I direct. And I also am director of choral activities at the University of Michigan where I teach eight graduate students and conduct two ensembles. And then I also am the artistic director of the Washington course, which is a symphonic course in the DC area. So it’s pretty busy. And so my background is pretty broad from teaching to editing, composing, conducting, and all of that.
Alyssa Morar: Excellent. Well, stepping back a little bit, how did you get started in music and what inspired you to walk this path in life?
Eugene Rogers: I don’t remember a day that I have not been making music. As a little boy, I grew up in rural Virginia and I have early memories of just singing everywhere. And I lived in on a dirt road. So when I would come home from school, they would drop us off at the top of the road and I’d walk and I would sing that entire way home. I’d serenade my whole community and finally somebody said, let’s get that boy in church and give him a solo when I was five. And that is when my singing began. And I started then traveling around and singing in talent shows and church programs.
And finally I was able to get piano lessons from my middle school teacher, Daphne Smith, who’s a family member now. And had it not been for her, I would’ve not have really been able to have a formal career in music in terms of classical music, I should say. And so it was through her that I, gosh, I opened my eyes to all so many diverse styles, and that’s when my life changed and I realized that I wanted to make a living out of this. And from there I went to undergraduate in Illinois, University of Illinois, and then University of Michigan for my masters in doctorate, stopping to teach in between all of those degrees and the rest is history from there. So I just have always felt like music was a very close friend, and now it’s not only a friend, it’s my profession.
Alyssa Morar: Excellent. Well, for our listeners who may be hearing about the Black is Beautiful Project for the first time, this project includes a week-long artist residency with Eugene and Exigence, and that will conclude with the Black is Beautiful concert on May 7th. But the residency also includes a community forum on May 6th at the Hult Center, and we really hope that the listener will want to come out and get involved and speak with Eugene and see what he has to say in person. So with all that in mind, Eugene, what excites you most about the Black Is Beautiful Project or the Performance of Black is Beautiful?
Eugene Rogers: Yeah, so much. Thinking of the week, one of the things that I love about Exigence is not only their ability to perform at a very high level, but also because there’s such diverse talent in the group. There’s so many teachers, whether they’re private voice teachers or teachers of conducting or teachers of composition in addition to performing. I love, this is a perfect week for us because not only do we get to have this project at a very high level, we get to collaborate with new friends, the Eugene Concert choir and orchestra, we get to work with solo singers. Two of our voice professors are going to be doing private lessons. I’ll be doing some coral clinics as well as conducting, working with some conductors. I think there’s a possibility of our composers, our feature composer is a member of the ensemble as well as we have other composers in the group.
There’s just, we love being able to share our performance and work with the community. This is perfect. So it’s hard for me to say what I’m most excited about because it allows us to wear all of our hats from being both pedagogues as well as performers. And so I’m excited about it all really. And I don’t know if you know about this, I had a small window of teaching in Salem, Oregon. I’ve also conducted the Oregon Allstate Choir once in my life, and I’ve conducted the All Northwest Honor Choir twice. So I have a lot of friends and a lot of connection to the state of Oregon. So for me, it’s a little bit of a homecoming, actually.
Alyssa Morar: Oh, that’s so wonderful. I didn’t know that. I’m glad to hear that. And our community is so lucky to have this opportunity and I really hope that people are going to want to come out and really get involved and it’s going to be a beautiful thing. Well, you will be conducting the first half of the Black Is Beautiful concert. And can you tell us about some of the repertoire in that part of the program?
Eugene Rogers: Sure. Exigence will form a small set, one of the pieces is going to be a brand new premiere, so I don’t have a title of it yet, but Stacey Gibbs composer is writing us a piece called The Hymn, actually that uses Lift Every Voice in Sing and the Battle Hymn of Republic. And it will be sort of a musical, if you will, commentary on his thoughts about America today. So I haven’t even seen the score yet. So I’m very excited about premiering this piece. We will be performing, and a couple of things are still in discussion. We’ll be performing Derek Spiva’s sort of cutting edge new sort of approach to core music called A Vision Unfolding, which is really a message of ours, a vision unfolding in terms of opening our mindset about what choral music should look like, what conversation should be had on the concert stage, as well as vision for our various communities, the Black and Latinx communities, and how we hope to see them in the world as well as in the classical sphere.
And then Augustus Hill, we have a strong connection, of course, to the city of Detroit. That’s where the headquarters of Sphinx is. And Augustus’s, Dr. Augustus Hill wrote a arranged, a spiritual called Fix Me Jesus that features one of our leading met sopranos, Leona Wimberley Williams. And we will also be performing that work, which is a moving experience. I call it choral art song because the way he has arranged the spiritual, it is truly a work of art in every way.
And that’ll be followed by then Joel Thompson’s powerful Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, which is a work that I’ve had the chance to premier and champion since 2015. That has in some ways become the Black Lives Matter classical response to a lot of things that we’ve seen in terms of police brutality. And then that’ll be followed by my arrangement of John Legends and Common’s Glory that’ll feature two of our very own artists as soloists. So very excited about that first half. It’s be a thrilling first half sharing the intimate nature of repertoire with Exigence, but then with the Eugene Concert Choir, the Eugene Orchestra and Exigence performing together, Joel Thompson’s powerful Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.
Alyssa Morar: Yeah, I am personally so excited to hear that one. Everything I’ve heard about that work is just incredible. And could you tell us a little bit about what it’s like to collaborate with another choir for a piece like that? What it’s like to collaborate with Diane Retallack, our artistic director and conductor of the Eugene Concert Choir?
Eugene Rogers: Well, Diane is nothing short of amazing to me. I’ve become a big fan. She and I have a Zoom cell phone relationship. We’ve met each other once, but we feel like we are kindred spirits and can’t wait to work together because without her vision of this concert and having Exigence be a part of it, none of it would’ve happened. And so I’m so indebted to her and her perseverance and vision behind us. That’s the sole reason why we’re here and we’re humbled and honored by that. We love collaborating. Of course, it changes whenever this Exigence premiered the SATB version of this. However, the University of Michigan premiered, the original form of this was just TTBB. And so we love performing this work. We’ve only performed it once with another choir, and that was the Washington Chorus, a smaller cohort of them, but I think this is with the full Eugene Concert choir.
So this will be very different for us to have this work done with all of those voices. Because Diane is so connected to me and the conversations we have, I know that the preparation will all will be in a way that feels organic. This is not a work that every choir should just say, “We’re going to do this,” and start it from page one and go to the end. There needs to be a lot of conversation. There needs to be a lot of discussion about the process, why the work is written, what are the words mean? How does it connect? Joel has written the work in such a way that if the singers are singing either the last words or the last correspondences of the victims, so therefore some of those words are very charged and some of the ways that he sets the work, the work was really a diary entry.
He never meant it to ever be performed. So there’s some things that are really raw. There’s some things that are sad and there’s some joy from Amadou Diallo who says, “Mom, I’m going to college.” But then there’s some moments of absolute anger and fear. And so to ask choirs to step into that space can be challenging. And so we’re looking forward to collaborating with another choir, but we know that that’s going to be a lot of our process of getting us on the same page emotionally so that we can really allow nothing but the music and those last words to come to the fore and not one’s discomfort because Joel asks a lot of the listener. And then Glory is a call to action. When I first premiered the work, I felt like we needed to not end with I Can’t Breathe, I wanted the audience to feel like, “Okay, what do I do with this? I’ve heard this work. It’s challenged me to think about maybe things differently or feel things that maybe I haven’t felt allowed myself to feel in this top, in this space.”
But I wanted to leave people with, we can work together and make change and Glory ends with, we change the spoken word and it talks about us coming together as one if we really want to make a difference. And there’s no better way than to see black and brown people on that stage together talking about making change for good. And so I’m looking forward to it, but there will be an emotional journey. I’m hoping that possibly I can come out to see the choir beforehand. It will make that week a little easier just so they can already begin that emotional prep. It’s not just musical prep. So if not, that’s what a lot of our time will be, is really, really coming together as one before that performance.
Alyssa Morar: And I’ve definitely been hearing from our choir that they’re already processing and really working through the emotional response to the works. But I do think you’ve programmed it in a way where it’s really, it’s going to be a journey that ends in a place of hope, it sounds like.
Eugene Rogers: Yes, absolutely. Hope and call to action.
Alyssa Morar: Yes.
Eugene Rogers: Because there’s work to be done that’s can’t come from any group of one group of people. It’s community work, it’s humanitarian work. So I’m looking for that’s…. I love that journey, especially when people come open it. It’s work if people start with a position of being closed, if you’re going to perform it, you can be closed as a listener, but not as a performer, not really communicate the message. And so I’m looking forward to bringing that to the fore, to Oregon. I don’t know if this is an Oregon premiere or not. I don’t know if it’s been done out there or not.
Alyssa Morar: Well, I’ll have to look into that. I don’t know if it having been done out here. So I would not be surprised if it is the Oregon premiere. And I certainly hope that our listeners will come with the openness and really with the desire to go out and get involved and be the change
Eugene Rogers: And have conversations. Sometimes change is not necessarily, sometimes people think, “If I don’t march, if I don’t do this or that, I’m not making change.” Change can happen right in your home with your children in your churches or synagogues or mosques. Change happens in those small little things. How we greet someone, how we open the door. That’s the matter of are we are in our own sphere of influence, trying to make this place a better place so that we all can be seen as equals and together. That’s really, to me, I think the bigger change the work, Joel, when I think about his process, as I said, it was a diary entry, never to be performed, there are some experiences, emotions that I think he allows us to enter in that maybe if he was thinking that he was writing it for an audience, he wouldn’t have written it in a certain way. But we have been nothing but grateful that he has allowed his diary to be made public, if you will, so that we can also go on that journey on our own way as well.
Alyssa Morar: And can you tell us a little bit more about how that piece came in? I’ve heard a little bit about the history of Joel’s process and that other people wanted this to become more than just a diary entry. But yeah, I’d love to hear a little bit about that.
Eugene Rogers: Joel Thompson, when the officers who we know killed Eric Garner were not indicted, that evoked in it sort of caused a real emotional response in a lot of us. But for Joel, he needed to deal with that pain. And for him, that was like we all do, we turn to the arts. He turned to composition even though at that time he was more of a conductor than a composer. And so that he was studying conducting then actually, and was studying the Seven Last Words From The Cross of Hayden’s, Hayden’s setting. And began to use Shiran Bargi, who’s an Iranian American artist and journalist, and began to use her pictograms. She began to have create pictograms based on the last words of victims every time one would happen. He began to collected seven of those that most aligned with the tech structure of Hayden’s Seven Last Words from the Cross in order to give it some kind of cohesion, if you will.
And thus began to write. And using his compositional background and his eclectic background of styles, every word, every person’s words is set differently. So you have seven different styles, if you will, from this funereal dirge of the beginning of officers why do you have your guns out to this? I call a death fugue, a chase to what are you following me for of Trayvon Martin? And you hear the chase in the fugue to this almost saccharin suite, if you will, musical theater ask of, it’s not real playing on the idea of a dream, but also dealing with John Crawford’s words when he was killed for having a BB gun in Walmart that it’s not real, but also, is this really happening? This isn’t real. So the work is absolutely brilliant. It is not very long because it’s 15 minutes in length. It gets right to the point, it gets in and gets out, and every word presents a different, if you will, musical expression.
So he wrote that and put it away. And then something else happened, another person was killed that a friend of his at the time said, “You know what? I think you have to hear this. I think you need to let this at least be heard.” And he then went on Facebook and said, “I’d like to do a reading of this,” not a performance, a reading. And called all of his friends, anybody who wanted to come out and just do a reading of the work. And at that reading, someone said, “I think you should show this to Dr. Eugene Rogers to consider performing this with,” at that time, I used to be the conductor of the Michigan Men’s Glee Club, which is 100 voice ensemble of tenors and basses. And I sat on the work because that’s a group that is mostly known for, its, it’s fight songs and being excellent, but also school spirit, rah, rah, rah, mostly non-African American.
I’m not anti-police in any way. We need the police in our lives. There’s, there’s conversations that need to happen, but I don’t want to necessarily live in a country without police. However, I knew that this was going to because how, and this is a group that’s prided itself and never taking political stances in any way. So how could we sing this work? Because even though the work was not meant to be political, again, it was a diary entry, a processing of emotions. I knew that people would have a hard time potentially not seeing it as that. So so I put it away because I’m like, “I don’t think there’s a way I can do this, even though I love it. It speaks to me as an African American, how can I do this work?” And finally, my inner voice, I call it the Holy Spirit, whatever folks call that kept coming back to me and said, “Loss, we may not can relate to the reasons, but we all can relate to losing someone we love.”
So we then formed a concert called Love, Life and Loss. And we presented this piece as a conversation about loss. And we were also going to South Africa at that time, setting the teachings of Nelson Mandela and the Ubuntu principle, which is that we are all more human through the humanity of others. So we also use that philosophy, thinking about their humanity, their lives, their loss. We can connect to that regardless of our political stance or views. Loss is loss. And so that is how we first performed the work post George Floyd.
And when George Floyd was killed, there was a lot of conversations about Black Lives Matter, conversations about issues in this country of racism that we were not having as boldly or as broadly prior to that. It’s interesting now, the statements that we make and conversations we can have around the piece would be very different than 2015 when Black Lives Matter was sort of just coming to the fore. People didn’t know what that was about. And of course there are others who still feel that way, but we’ve definitely come a long way post 2020 and the death of George Floyd about having these conversations. So that’s the process. And Joel allowed us through this work to premiere the work that he never ever intended to be heard.
Alyssa Morar: Well, that is definitely important work that happened, and I’m so glad it all happened.
Eugene Rogers: I am too. I’m glad he trusted us. And that’s the thing. And I actually didn’t know how close it was to him in that respect. In other words, I never knew that he, until after I had gone on the process. But I’m so honored. I used to thank him, “Thank you for trusting us enough with your own emotions.” Because for him, every time it’s performed, it is like hearing or feeling his own feel, things being publicly, being exploited or being shared, if you will. So it’s taken him a minute to get comfortable and he’s a founding member of Exigence. So at first he was always a listener, but he’s now performed it multiple times as a member of Exigence as well. And he’ll be performing on this concert as a member of the ensemble. There’s definitely a different… He says that has also taken him on another journey actually being inside of the score and performing it as well.
Alyssa Morar: That’s such a gift to all of us listeners and all of us humans, I’m getting chills just hearing you talk about the work itself and the whole process.
Eugene Rogers: Thank you, thank you.
Alyssa Morar: I really can’t wait to see that on our stage here in Eugene. It’s going to be amazing.
Eugene Rogers: And the conversations we hope will happen before, during, and after that for me is for us, it’s almost equal of not more than the performance. And we hope that there will be space for that for not only us as performers. We will make space. Joel is one of the things I can tell you is that he is adamant about that choirs have to have make that space. But I’m hoping there would be space for the audience as well to have begin their own dialogue in whatever form away. I find sometimes people need time to go process. Sometimes people want to just talk right away. I want to talk about this, what is this? Why is this? There is sevenlastwords.org that I would encourage people when the Michigan Men’s Glee Club, we are at a public institution and we felt strongly that we wanted folks to understand our process of performing it.
They created a website specifically for this work that deals, that has all a lot of interviews, that has program notes, that has the documentary that was created by Michigan about the work. I encourage people before if they’re able to go and live with that website, it has all of the legal cases. I work with the UM law school that also has the legal cases and all of the ramifications of that and the decisions that were made by the courts in these cases. There’s also worked with the School of Education to create a lot of educational materials that are on that website as well for people that have questions that people can process and use that can be used as follow up, that can be used beforehand. I hope you all will promote that and that folks will live with that website a bit. There’s a lot there.
Alyssa Morar: Yeah. That is wonderful to know about. And I will put that up on the Eugene Concert Choir website as soon as we finish this interview so people can have an easy way to find it there.
Eugene Rogers: Yes.
Alyssa Morar: Yeah. And for sure, having the conversation, promoting the conversation, facilitating the conversation is a big part of what we’re trying to do with this concert. So there will absolutely be space and stay tuned in. There’ll be announcements of what’s happening, how to be involved and how to move forward, how to-
Eugene Rogers: Yes, that’s right. Together.
Alyssa Morar: How to make the world better together. Yes.
Eugene Rogers: And having the composer’s voice, I can speak about it very intimately as someone who premiered it and championed the work. But having Joel there, we’ve been together since 2014. Even though it’s been here in 2015. So you can imagine how many years. I still learn new things every time he speaks about the work because he has grown so much also as an artist. He’s now in residence with the Houston Grand Opera as their first composer in residence. They’re in Texas and he’s finishing up his doctorate at Yale University. And he’s just, he’s so articulate about his process, his thoughts, his thoughts about arts and its ability to affect change, arts and its ability to really help us process many issues in our society today. I think he’s really an arts cultural ambassador, and I look forward to have him speak as well a part of this panel that week.
Alyssa Morar: Yes. During the community forum. He’ll be participating in that. Yeah.
Eugene Rogers: Yes. Thank you. I got the wrong name. The community forum.
Alyssa Morar: Oh yeah. Well, you may have already sort of addressed this, but do you have a hope for what our community here in Eugene will take away from this powerful collection of music?
Eugene Rogers: I never like to tell an audience what to feel or what to think. I’m very conscientious about that because I think sometimes because that’s through my own filter. So I will say, what I do hope is that people bring an open heart and open mind all I hope for, because what they feel and think and what they take away from it may be bigger, greater or totally different than what I, in my own filter of life can even imagine. And so I just hope people will come with open hearts and minds.
Alyssa Morar: So other than coming to concerts and doing the residency events that we have scheduled for the Black Is Beautiful Project, is there a way that our community can be involved with Exigence and the Sphinx organization from our home base here in Eugene?
Eugene Rogers: Absolutely. I first hope people will go to the website, Sphinx, S-P-H-I-N-X music.org, which has so much information, information about not only Exigence, but the organization, ways to support, ways to learn about the work that’s happening, the conference that they have every year, whether that’s being a part of it virtually. They always have a virtual option. They have all a lot of archived videos from those conferences as well as watching videos and just donating to support diversity in the arts and championing this organization that has been doing the work for over 25 years. A lot of people are starting this work now, but when I think about their really vision so long ago and the impact that they have had on classical music in this country, it’s really bar none in terms of diversity. And I hope folks will familiarize themselves in, get engaged and involved in any way that inspires them. But first visiting that website, I think they’ll learn a lot.
Alyssa Morar: Absolutely. And well, this has been a fabulous conversation. I’ve learned so much.
Eugene Rogers: Oh, thank you.
Alyssa Morar: And just to close it out, do you have any words of advice for aspiring musicians and our community, and especially for our young black, Latinx, and indigenous community members?
Eugene Rogers: The thing that I will say, a couple of lessons that I have learned in my short life is don’t be afraid to be beautifully you. And so often, I know for myself so often being a black gay man in America born poor, I was often trying to be somebody else. I was often trying to fit into a box. I was often trying to say the right things or talk a certain way or program the right music. And it was really this work, the Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, when I realized that the best gift I can give to anybody is being honest and being true on stage and through how I communicate and being myself, it from there, my whole life has changed. From there, I feel like I’ve made more honest music, truer music, more dedicated music, more heartfelt music. And I would encourage every artist from all backgrounds. But specifically the question you ask, be yourself. Be proud to be yourself. No apologies, but also be willing to learn and engage from everyone as well. So those will be my parting words.
Alyssa Morar: Wow. Well, they are wonderful words. Thank you so much for-
Eugene Rogers: Thank you.
Alyssa Morar: … making the time to talk with us. And you’re truly-
Eugene Rogers: I love it.
Alyssa Morar: …inspiring.
Eugene Rogers: Oh, thank you. I love it. I’m so looking forward to this. Thank you.
Daniel Olbrych: Thank you both for taking the time to chat with us. And thank you for tuning in to the Hult Center podcast. This is going to be a truly special performance for our community and tickets to Black Is Beautiful start at just $10. And those are available at hultcenter.org.
Get your tickets to Black is Beautiful, Sunday, May 7.