VCU Symphony performance highlights theme of ‘Unity’

By Bailee Padgett, The Commonwealth Times

The VCU Symphony performed a concert entitled “Unity” at the Sonia Vlahcevic Concert Hall, located inside the W.E. Singleton Center, last month in celebration of Richmond’s diverse community. 

VCU Orchestra Director Daniel Myssyk said as tensions in foreign countries continue to rise with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the resounding theme of unity was a significant part of the performance.

“We are looking at a world in complete transformation right now, so I wanted to see what pieces featuring voices from minorities could do for the community,” Myssyk said.

The works chosen for this concert reflect the importance of diversity within Richmond’s own community as they identify with many of VCU’s students, Myssyk said.

“As human beings, we need to find ways to escape from the brutality of our world and its many injustices,” Myssyk said. “‘Umoja’ is a piece that centers on unity and allows the listener to reflect on past and current injustices, but also presents moments filled with joy and gratitude.” 

The piece climbs from tranquility to increasing tensions before concluding in joy – all in a span of about ten minutes. 

“If we, as musicians, can help build bridges between people of various backgrounds by playing such beautiful music then we are accomplishing something good for the world,” Myssyk said.

VCU’s annual Concerto Competition winners Caleb Stanger and Zach Williams performed their winning pieces by Antonín Dvořák, Camille Saint-Saëns and Alexander Borodin with the VCU Symphony, according to VCUarts Music’s statement.

Students can enter the annual concerto competition each fall to play pieces for their respective instruments. The musicians played in front of a jury with an additional pianist to determine the winner who plays their piece in the spring with the orchestra, according to Stanger.

“Being one of the winners of the competition is a pretty big deal, it was super stiff competition,” Williams said. “I didn’t think I would win but it is such a good experience and so incredible to work with other musicians.”

The concert showcased contemporary composer Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja: Anthem of Unity.” The Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned “Umoja,” making it the first classical piece by a living Black female composer that they performed, according to Coleman’s website. 

The term “umoja” comes from the Swahili word for unity, representing the first principle of Kwanzaa. The holiday strives to maintain this theme within families, communities, nations and race, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture website. 

“I really liked ‘Umoja,’ any modern pieces like that are really fun and this one plays with different time signatures and layering [of sounds],” Williams said.

“Umoja” reflects the powerful phrase “I am because we are” to inspire the community and bring people together in order to achieve great things, according to Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

The audience included VCU students, staff, and families — including sophomore sculpture and psychology student Henna Asthana.

“The music was really peaceful,” Asthana said. “It felt really welcoming and unifying. It is nice to be able to attend concerts like these after all the challenges with COVID-19.” 

Lead Image: Cellist Zach Williams performs his solo during the VCU Symphony’s performance of Cello Concerto in B minor on March 4. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore. From The Commonwealth Times.