February is a tough month for PaviElle French, the St. Paul-raised soul singer, pianist and performer. First comes the anniversary of her mother’s death, followed the next day by her father’s birthday. Both died eight years ago, plunging her into deep grief.
But this week, February will also become the month French debuted a symphony.
“My mom’s death day and my dad’s birthday are always going to be back-to-back,” French said. “It’s always going to be a reminder.” The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s premiere of “A Requiem for Zula,” French’s first classical composition, adds to and transforms those markers, she said: “I can deal with it different, and I can breathe different.
“It’s been healing me so much that I can’t wait to see what it does for other people.”
French, 34, wrote the chamber symphony to honor her mother, Zula Young, and her home, the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul. She approached the SPCO a few years back, wanting to partner on something grand. It proposed commissioning a piece from her, showcasing it during the first Tapestry festival, a series of concerts steeped in themes of home.
“We were just so immediately taken by her energy,” said Kyu-Young Kim, the SPCO’s artistic director. “She’s a dynamo, and she has an amazing heart and something really important to say.”
French isn’t classically trained. She writes music by playing the piano, recording her voice, revising. So the SPCO hooked her up with a composer and an arranger who helped her orchestrate her piece, giving her notes about instruments for which she’d never written.
“That’s nice,” French remembers one telling her, “but the oboe doesn’t go that low.” The piece stretches the orchestra, as well, into R&B, jazz and soul.
During an interview this week, on her father’s birthday, French reflected on creating the requiem, which premieres Friday at the Ordway in downtown St. Paul. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
On the Ordway:
“I’ve been doing this since I was a kid; I was a child performer. So to finally get to be in these spaces, in these places that we don’t necessarily always get to be in, as local artists and also as African-American people, that’s a huge thing.
“I was a roadie for Regina Marie Williams when I was a kid and she did ‘Dinah Was’ with the Penumbra Theatre in collaboration with the Ordway. I was about 13, 14 years old. And I remember peeking into the [Ordway], thinking, ‘That’s going to be me.’
“Twenty years later, this is exactly what I said I was going to do, and I’m doing it.”
On pitching an orchestra:
“I wanted to collaborate with an orchestra and make a big sound. They told me about Tapestry. ... It was like kismet.
“This title had popped into my head. At first, I heard ‘Requiem for Rondo,’ and I was like, no. Because Rondo isn’t dead. But then I was like, ‘Requiem for Zula.’ That’s it. I couldn’t think of anything else. There was a hush over the room, and everybody smiled.
“Before we even inked the deal, I started writing stuff, started piecing together little things I could hear. I started listening to Classical MPR every day, to understand the form.
“I would think about music my mom liked to hear — smooth jazz, funk jazz. Parliament, Tower of Power, Barry White. I laid down the foundation, and then I’d freestyle a lot with lyrics and melodies. [Arranger] Michi [Wiancko] wrote it out, and she wrote it to spec, because I was sort of scared. I didn’t want it to get 4/4’d up and square. I wanted it to have its looseness, its rhythm, its funk, its swing.”
On her mother’s love:
After her parents’ deaths, French moved to Hawaii. “I used to go to the water and sing her favorite gospel songs. In public. I wouldn’t care who was out at the beach. It was like I was trying to conjure her.
“I saw my reflection in the water. And in that reflection, I heard my mom speak. She told me to come back home and to do this music. Because I had just given up on it. I was seriously done.
“The piece really focuses on my mother’s love … because she’s still mothering us. She still takes care of me.
“It’s a symphony in her name, but it’s also a time capsule to me, in a lot of ways, just to mark how far I’ve come. It’s taught me how to talk to people about something that devastated and interrupted my life.
“I don’t want my people to be saddened by it. I want people to be inspired by it. To see that you can move through something that you can’t necessarily see your way out of. I couldn’t see any way out of this for like five, six years.
“When it came time to write the lyrics, I just hit ‘record’ and let it all pour out. It wrote itself. It just wrote itself.”
On the big premiere:
“I just want to hear what it sounds like when it fills up the room. I’m really excited to hear what I wrote outside of my head or outside of a keyboard or a computer.
“If I’m nervous about anything, I’m nervous about it hitting me. Even when I play it on my own, I get to some points and I get chills. It happens every time. Yesterday, when I was practicing, it shut me down. I started quivering everywhere.
“I got seats for them, for my parents. In the front row. I went and got sashes made, so I could drape them over the seats. At first I thought, maybe I’ll set them up onstage. But I was like, nah, I want them to be where they would be if they were alive.
“And my mom and daddy would be right up front.”
about the SPCO’s Tapestry festival in Sunday’s Variety.