After George Floyd's death, seemingly every Twin Cities classical group promised to perform more music by African American composers. But VocalEssence already had been at it for three decades.
Or as Philip Brunelle, artistic director of the Minneapolis banner bearer for choral music, put it recently: "We were doing this before other people realized they should be doing this."
Thirty years on, VocalEssence's "Witness" program remains vibrant though virtual. The 2021 incarnation will be presented at vocalessence.org at 4 p.m. Sunday, then be available on demand.
Brunelle was inspired by Black History Month when he launched "Witness" in 1991 as an education program in local schools that culminated in a big concert.
While it quickly attracted an audience — it helped to have celebrated baritone Jubilant Sykes as guest artist — attention increased significantly three years later.
"That year we had a piece by Michael Abels," Brunelle said. "We needed a narrator. And I thought: 'A narrator. Hmmm. You know who we ought to get is [actor] James Earl Jones.'
"When someone asked afterward, 'How did you get him?' I said, 'I asked.' … He was thrilled. No one had ever commissioned a piece for narrator and orchestra for him."
Each year had a theme, often highlighting a hero of African American culture, a historical event or a large-scale work by a Black composer. Most years, VocalEssence commissioned Black composers to write for the concert, among them William C. Banfield, Patrice Rushen and Alvin Singleton.
Relationships were developed that led to repeat visits by such guest artists as former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove, jazz pianist/composer Billy Taylor and the Morehouse College Glee Club from Atlanta.
This year's concert will feature several African American composers, including Rosephanye Powell, Ysaye Barnwell and Melanie DeMore. Recorded at two venues, it will feature all three of VocalEssence's choirs: its Ensemble Singers, Chorus and its youth choir, Singers of This Age, as well as a small instrumental combo.
On the podium will be associate conductor G. Phillip Shoultz III, who created four new arrangements for the program, including Bill Withers' "Lean on Me" and the hymn "We Shall Overcome."
"In responding to what's been happening over the past year, we really wanted to focus on music's role in advancing social change," Shoultz said from VocalEssence's offices at Minneapolis' Plymouth Congregational Church. "The spiritual tradition was created out of this sense of struggle and suffering. But yet in the midst of those songs, you hear echoes of liberation and freedom of mind, even though the body is enslaved. So we chronicle that and sing excerpts of songs that have inspired movements of social change, from the abolition of slavery through the civil rights movement and then into now."
As for the music, it's quite varied in sound.
"It's my way of showing that Black music and Black people really can run the gamut of expression and styles," Shoultz said. "We even get this from our Black audience members sometimes in surveys: When it comes to 'Witness,' it's like, 'Oh, I expected there to be more rhythm and more drums.' People expect gospel, jazz, soul or funk. And we need that, and there is that on this program. But there's also this other side of the Black musical experience that I wanted to draw attention to."
While Singers of This Age is a very diverse group, the Chorus and Ensemble Singers are predominantly white.
"The majority of our singers do not come from an African American experience," Shoultz said. "Yet they're all deeply connected to social justice in their own ways. And we spent this year exploring that in conversations and small affinity groups, people reading books together and watching podcasts and having discussions."
While "Witness" is VocalEssence's most high-profile annual event, this year's version feels different, Shoultz said.
"It's really close to home now, since we're at the epicenter for everything. And it just took the pandemic to slow us all down enough for so many people to do the work. Our singers have been waiting for this, many of them. The 'Witness' concerts are ones that hold a special place in their hearts because they feel like they're doing some work to bridge the divide in the community with music."
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • email@example.com
When: 4 p.m. Sun. and on demand afterward.