Newport Classical will present the world premiere of Crooked Shanks by Shawn E. Okpebholo, performed by pianist Aldo López-Gavilán on Saturday, July 9 at 8pm, at The Breakers (44 Ochre Point Ave.) as part of the 2022 Newport Classical Music Festival (formerly Newport Music Festival), running from July 1-17, 2022. The pieceis the second annual commission as part of Newport Classical’s new initiative – each year, the organization is commissioning a work by a Black, Indigenous, person of color, or woman composer as a commitment to the future of classical music. The concert on July 9 features brothers Ilmar Gavilán, violin, and Aldo López-Gavilán, piano, in music by López-Gavilán.
Shawn Okpebholo is a critically acclaimed and award-winning composer whose music has been described as “devastatingly beautiful” and “fresh and new and fearless” (The Washington Post), and “staggering” (The New Yorker). He has been featured on PBS Newshour, and radio broadcasts across the country including NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition. He maintains a dynamic career as a composer, including performances on five continents, in over forty states and almost every major U.S. city, at some of the nation’s most prestigious performance spaces and festivals including Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, the National Cathedral, Lyric Opera of Chicago recital series, Washington National Opera Inauguration Day Concert, and the Ravinia Music Festival.
Okpebholo’s new piece for Newport Classical is inspired by Occramer Marycoo, an enslaved African in 18th-century Newport who, despite his enslavement, became educated, spoke multiple languages, and trained as a classical musician.
Okpebholo says, “Not familiar with Rhode Island, I began researching various aspects of the state’s and the city of Newport’s history and came across a fascinating historical figure called Occramer Marycoo, an enslaved African who was ultimately sold to Caleb Garder in Newport, RI. Marycoo was given the name Newport Gardner, after his involuntary home and his enslaver — a name he would keep. . . He is credited with being the first African American person to have a composition published in the Western-style. The work was called ‘Crooked Shanks,’ a whistle-worthy happy tune. After decades of enslavement, he won the lottery, bought his freedom, and became a prosperous man. A beautiful bookend to his life, Gardner did something that relatively few enslaved Africans did: re-cross the Atlantic and return home to Africa, where, soon after, he would leave this Earth. This work is composed for Cuban pianist Aldo López-Gavilán and inspired by Gardner’s tune, ‘Crooked Shanks.’ This composition is also loosely influenced by African and Latin sensibilities, reflecting Gardner’s and my, and López-Gavilán’s cultural heritages, respectively. In getting to know Gardener’s journey, I kept gravitating to the notion of traveling, which, along with the perils of the enslaved, the hope of freedom, and the return home, is the extra-musical core of this work.”
Crooked Shanks was commissioned by Newport Classical for Aldo López-Gavilán’s July 2022 performance in Newport, RI in loving memory of Marilyn J. Woloohojian for her extraordinary generosity, commitment to the future of classical music, and in honor of her thirty years as a member of the Board of Directors. “Do not let the music die.” — Marilyn J. Woloohojian
Shawn Okpebholo’scompositions have been featured on six commercially released albums, including his first album solely devoted to his music, Steal Away, a collection of re-imagined Negro spirituals. His compositional and research interests have been a gateway for ethnomusicological fieldwork in both East and West Africa: studying the music of the Esan people in southern Nigeria, the Akambe people in the Machakos region of Kenya, and South Sudanese refugees in northern Uganda. Growing up, a significant part of his music education was through The Salvation Army church, where he regularly received free music lessons. Inspired by that charity, Okpebholo is passionate about offering his musical expertise to underserved communities. Currently, he is Professor of Music Composition and Theory at Wheaton College-Conservatory of Music (IL). He is also the Composer-in-Residence of the renowned Fifth House Ensemble and was awarded a residency with the Chicago Opera Theater (2021-2023).
Praised for his “dazzling technique and rhythmic fire” in the Seattle Times and dubbed a “formidable virtuoso” by The Times of London, pianist and composer Aldo López-Gavilán excels in both the classical and jazz worlds as a recitalist, concerto soloist, chamber-music collaborator, and performer of his own electrifying jazz compositions. Recognized as a child prodigy in Cuba, Ilmar Gavilán has had a distinguished career as a concerto soloist, chamber musician and improvisor. Following his first-place win at the Sphinx Competition as a young adult, he became the founding first violinist of the acclaimed Harlem Quartet. Along the way, he developed improvisational skills and has performed and released albums with such jazz greats as Paquito D’Rivera, Eddie Palmieri, Gary Burton and Chick Corea, with whom the Harlem Quartet won a Grammy.
For its 54th season, Newport Classical Music Festival presents 24 concerts over 18 days and returns for the first time since 2019 to the stunning interiors of Newport’s historic mansions and venues including The Breakers, Blithewold Mansion, The Elms, Castle Hill Inn, Chinese Tea House, Great Friends Meeting House, King Park, Newport Art Museum, Norman Bird Sanctuary, Redwood Library & Athenaeum, and Emmanuel Church.
Newport Classical has a rich legacy of musical curiosity, presenting the American debuts of over 130 international artists and rarely heard works. Since its founding in 1969, the organization has produced more than 3,000 concerts and hosted more than 1,200 musicians and singers. This year’s festival includes music by more than 40 women composers.
For the full Newport Classical Music Festival schedule, visit: www.newportclassical.org/music-festival