The brea(d)th of the Promise: Reimagining Chorus Preparation in Our Time

Conductors are accustomed to having the answers. We are experts at in-depth research and analysis, careful planning, and usually answer questions before people even realize they have them. It can be an intimidating yet refreshing change to encounter a piece of music that demands more from us and asks more questions than it answers, revealing new possibilities for our art form and collaborators.

This was the case with brea(d)th, a piece for chorus, orchestra, and spoken word artist that was premiered in May 2023 by the Minnesota Orchestra, Minnesota Chorale, and 29:11 International Exchange. The piece, commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, was co-written by Carlos Simon (composer) and Marc Bamuthi Joseph (librettist and spoken word performer in the premiere performances). As Simon and Joseph write in the Artist Statement, brea(d)th is “a classical work, inspired by the enduring presence of George Floyd the Ancestor, asking America to consider an equitable future.” It’s worth taking 36 minutes to listen to the piece (available to stream from the Minnesota Orchestra's website), not just for its musical merits—which are numerous—but also for its powerful and poignant encapsulation of the centuries-long pursuit of racial equality in the United States.

I was in my final semester of doctoral studies with Kathy Saltzman Romey at the University of Minnesota. As was custom, I was fortunate to serve as Romey’s assistant as she prepared the Minnesota Chorale for their collaboration with the Minnesota Orchestra. In addition to the usual premiere-related unknowns (How long and what does the chorus sing? What forces and skills will be required? When will we get to see the score?!), the emotional weight of performing this work in Minneapolis could not be underestimated. Orchestra Hall is a few miles from where George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight in 2020, and across the street from where Amir Locke was murdered in his sleep in 2022. Both Black men were killed by members of the Minneapolis Police Department in a state with a troubling history of racial violence on behalf of law enforcement. We questioned how to allocate time between learning the piece and understanding its context, the positionality of the Chorale as a predominantly White chorus, and the role of the chorus within the entirety of the work. 

The title brea(d)th contains three words that encompass the thrust of the work: bread, referring to monetary value and value in general; breath, an essential element for living; and breadth, which represents what Joseph refers to as “the radius of American promise” and the ideals of equality and liberty for all people. The role of the chorus is a major one, despite the relatively small amount of singing it does. At times, the chorus is part of the orchestra and adds additional depth to the sonic texture. At other times the chorus echoes short phrases delivered initially by the spoken word artist and amplifies them through repetition, tessitura, and volume. The chorus becomes, in a sense, a voice of conscience that broadcasts private, internal thoughts regarding the struggles for equality into the public space. Texts like “So much work has been done. Who does the work that’s still left?” and “May we feast on the bread that brought us one more day to get it right” demand a deeper engagement from singers than much of the symphonic repertoire ensembles like the Chorale perform on a regular basis. Finally, the visual and sonic impact of a large chorus singing these words is impossible to dismiss. 

Minnesota Chorale singers meeting with Joseph and Simon on Zoom

Minnesota Chorale Singers meeting with Joseph and Simon on Zoom. 

The singers in this project experienced a rehearsal process divided roughly equally between learning the score and small group discussion. A one hour interview with Joseph and Simon helped singers better understand the creative process and their journey as two Black men charged with this commission. Discussions in rehearsals centered on questions drawn directly from the libretto: “When in your life have you felt most free?” was an opening question, situating our conversations in an open and imaginative mindset. Later in the rehearsal process, we grappled with “If not justice for all America/Then how do you choose/Who wins America/Does somebody invariably lose?” 

Despite the international response to George Floyd’s killing, the city of Minneapolis and its Police Department have yet to make any public gestures toward reconciliation and healing. The community continues to reel with the anger, distrust, and devastation wrought by Mr. Floyd’s killing. For some Chorale members, these conversations were the first time they spoke openly with others about Mr. Floyd’s killing and the devastating days after.

Indeed, America must, as Joseph and Simon remind us, begin to “heal in public.” Our rehearsal process, although imperfect and constrained by time, was an example of a first step toward healing. The result was a deeply engaged chorus ready to not only perform with technical skill, but also to challenge audiences to listen, to reflect, and to act. Singers commented that the project was meaningful, mind-opening, heart-opening, and among their most memorable singing experiences.

One week after the premiere, the majority of the Chorale and all of 29:11 International Exchange volunteered to perform the piece again with a chamber ensemble from the Minnesota Orchestra in a special performance at George Floyd Square. Community members were able to hear their words and sentiments that had been included in the piece, in the outdoor space that has become a site of pilgrimage and remembrance for visitors from around the world. While Chorale singers signed up to sing a premiere with the Orchestra, they also joined a community-within-a-community that explored questions of responsibility, accountability, authority, belonging, and equality in a city that badly needs space to do so. I’m not sure we experienced “healing in public,” and I truthfully don’t know if healing from centuries of race-based trauma is possible for any of us. I do know that we have to imagine the possibility of repair and act accordingly.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph, in addition to his extraordinary writing and performing, is also Vice President and Artistic Director of Social Impact at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. He often says that because “racism is structural, antiracism must also be structural.” The remarkable text and music contained within brea(d)th provides rich material for any community to delve into the impact of existing societal and organizational structures, and explore their role in the peril and possibility of American prosperity. 

Brea(d)th inspired us all to go deeper—into ourselves, into community, and into our country’s history—so we could do the piece justice as performers. It is a process that, for many singers, went beyond the music to inform their daily perspectives.  For the Chorale, it continued a relationship established with the community around George Floyd Square, and engaged over 100 singers—roughly half of the organization’s roster—in reflective conversation around topics related to equity and diversity. It laid the groundwork for future discussion, activity, and community building that is rooted both in repertoire and in the Chorale’s mission to “amplify diverse voices through… joyful collaboration” and “exploring our shared humanity.”

Brea(d)th allowed me to imagine and articulate a model of chorus preparation that is holistic, interdisciplinary, and responsive to the needs of the singers on the project as well as the needs of our community at large. Symphonic choruses, with their substantial rosters, have enormous potential to support change when it is required but have yet to fully leverage this potential. Pieces like brea(d)th shed light on the possibilities and, indeed, the responsibility to do so. 

In a field where we are working too hard with too few resources, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that we are all humans just trying to get from one day to the next. If we are ever to see change in our field – and in our country – we have to begin wrestling with difficult questions, tearing down existing structures, and imagining what new ones might look like. The final words of Joseph’s libretto say it best: “The promise of what’s possible/That’s the breadth of the task/To make possible/The breadth of the promise.” 

Shekela Wanyama is a conductor and music educator based in Minneapolis. She is on the faculties of the University of Minnesota and Hamline University.