Mission: To Seek and Share Inspiration


Classical Roots: Building Bridges

Meghan Berneking


Just two days after her jaw-dropping performance with John Legend at the 2017 Grammy Award ceremony, the news broke that Cynthia Erivo would be headlining this year’s Classical Roots concert program with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. While Classical Roots is always one of the CSO’s most highly anticipated programs of the year, the star power generated by this Grammy- and Tony-winning singer and actress shines a light on what this program means for the participating guest artists, as well as the Cincinnati community.

Ms. Erivo’s profile has skyrocketed in recent months, largely due to her widely lauded performance as Celie in Broadway’s The Color Purple, which earned her the 2016 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, as well as the 2017 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. Her powerful vocals brought down the house at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony in December which, coupled with the aforementioned Grammy Award appearance, has made her a household name. More than her celebrity, though, she’ll bring her commanding stage presence and heart-rending musical interpretations to the Queen City, elevating the Classical Roots experience for musicians, choir members and audience members alike.

Ms. Erivo won’t be the only fame on stage on May 5. Also joining the CSO for Classical Roots this year is the Sons of Serendip. The chamber ensemble, who won fans around the country after appearing on America’s Got Talent, is known for putting “classical” spins on modern popular music. During their stay in Cincinnati in the week prior to Classical Roots, the Sons of Serendip will visit classrooms and perform a community concert, as well as perform the National Anthem at Great American Ball Park prior to a Cincinnati Reds game.

Brought together by a series of what they call serendipitous events, the members of Sons of Serendip (lead vocalist Micah Christian, cellist and vocalist Kendall Ramseur, harpist Mason Morton, and pianist and guitarist Cordaro Rodriguez) each brings with them a unique backstory, including former careers, that led to the group’s foundation. What they share is a love for music and for inspiring joy in others through their talents.

This sentiment of inspiration echoes the longtime mission of the Classical Roots Community Mass Choir, the 145-member choir made up of volunteer singers who represent dozens of area churches. Led by conductor William H. Caldwell and prepared by several area music ministers, the Choir has played a key role in Classical Roots since its inception. “This entire experience is very positive because the members come from various churches throughout the greater Cincinnati area, and the pastors of these churches that I have personally interacted with are proud of the fact that they have members in the group,” said Mr. Caldwell. “It’s a good thing in Cincinnati. When we are in need of rehearsal space, churches of various denominations gladly volunteer to serve as host,” he said. Since membership has grown in recent years, it’s been possible for the Choir to perform outside of the annual Classical Roots CSO concert, proving the group can play a major role in the choral music ecosystem in Cincinnati, he said.

By encompassing members of all levels of musical expertise, the Choir also serves to foster lasting relationships between singers and help them deepen roots in their communities. Members of the Choir turn to each other for encouragement outside of the immediate musical experience as well. “Many of the members like to seek prayer and spiritual support as they deal with personal situations and crises in their lives. It’s not uncommon for someone to ask for prayer for a family member or friend [at the beginning or end of] the rehearsal,” said Mr. Caldwell.

Also included on the program are the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra Nouveau Chamber Players, a group of middle and high school string players who perform together year-round in recitals around the community. The Nouveau program, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, is designed to give young African American musicians valuable performance experience, as well as the opportunity to learn life-long professional skills and earn community service credits. CSYO Nouveau Chamber Players is an important part of the CSO’s commitment to diversity and education, and the presence of these young people on the Classical Roots stage continues to inspire audiences and musicians alike.

For the first time in Classical Roots history, there will also be five new faces on the stage who will be familiar to regular CSO and Pops concertgoers. The CSO’s new Diversity Fellowship program, in partnership with the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) and funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, provides new opportunities for underrepresented musicians, while simultaneously fostering a more inclusive environment in the world of professional orchestras. All five members of the inaugural class of Fellows (Emilio Carlo, viola; Diana Flores, cello; Blake-Anthony Johnson, cello; Vijeta Sathyaraj, violin; and Maurice Todd, double bass) will perform in their respective sections during Classical Roots. Mr. Johnson will also perform as soloist during the first movement of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto.

Conductor John Morris Russell has been leading Classical Roots concerts since their inception. While of course inspiring for audiences, the program and work with the Choir also inspire him. “Each year, my experience working with the Choir just gets more musically intense, as the skill and musicianship that is honed from year to year brings a new level of artistry to our performances,” said Mr. Russell. “The music ministers do an exemplary job preparing their singers, and William Caldwell is an extraordinary choral conductor who brings out the best in the ensemble. It is a joy for me to work with Mr. Caldwell and our chorus in rehearsal in the weeks prior to the performance. From the new arrangements that are crafted specifically for our choir, to the classic works of African American choral tradition—music-making with the Choir is invariably one of the most exciting things I do every year.”

With Music Hall undergoing a long-anticipated renovation, the CSO has been performing subscription concerts at the Taft Theatre during the 2016–17 season. As the search began for a suitable venue for Classical Roots during the Music Hall transition, a partnership opened with Crossroads Oakley, which provided the space and resources able to accommodate the sold-out crowd and large choir. This new partnership further demonstrates the community-centric approach to Classical Roots. “It’s really .an honor for the Crossroads community to host Classical Roots this year,” said Chuck Mingo, Campus Pastor for Crossroads Oakley. “This program is a tremendous opportunity, not only because of the world-class music-making that will take place, but also because Classical Roots is all about fostering relationships and making connections with friends and neighbors. This is the sort of bridge-building that Crossroads is all about, so it’s a natural fit for Classical Roots to take place at Crossroads Oakley this season.” As Classical Roots continues to evolve and grow, so, too, do the relationships on which it is built.