Asbury Music Composer Debuts World Premiere Orchestra Concert with Lexington Philharmonic – Asbury University
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Asbury Music Composer Debuts World Premiere Orchestra Concert with Lexington Philharmonic

May 13, 2024

On May 18 at 7:30 p.m., Dr. Shawn Okpebholo ’03 will premiere his new work of “Two Black Churches (baritone and orchestra)” with the Lexington Philharmonic (LexPhil) at the University of Kentucky’s Singletary Center for the Arts Concert Hall. Finishing his tenure as this year’s composer-in-residence for LexPhil, Okpebholo will present this work (originally scored for piano and baritone) for full orchestra featuring acclaimed baritone Will Liverman.

“Just to give you a sense of the importance, a lot of orchestras are lining up to perform that piece … so I think it’s going to be a very important event for Lexington in so many ways,” LexPhil Music Director Dr. Mélisse Brunet told the Herald Leader. “Because Shawn was born here, he discovered music and loved music through our town of Lexington, and he’s become that major composer, not only in the US, but worldwide. And this is very unique that we can afford to have him as a composer in residence for world premiere — very exciting.”

The poignant piece reflects on the racist attacks on the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, and the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. Dudley Randall’s poem, “Ballad of Birmingham,” became the basis for the first movement, the first church, which incorporates Black gospel music, contemporary art song and allusions to the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” and hymn “Amazing Grace.” Poet Laureate Marcus Amaker wrote a poem to reflect on the nine murders of Charleston’s historic Mother Emanuel AME Church during a Bible study in June 2015, which is the basis for the second movement which thematically and musically centers around the number nine and repeatedly invokes rain as a metaphor for a flood of racism and injustice.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in music composition and music history from Asbury University (then Asbury College), Okpebholo received his master and doctoral degrees in composition from the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music, where he also studied music theory. Okpebholo had additional studies in film scoring from New York University through the Buddy Baker Film Scoring Program.

Okpebholo serves as the Jonathan Blanchard professor of composition and music theory at Wheaton College-Conservatory of Music (Ill.) and in 2023 received a Grammy nomination for Best Classical Vocal Solo Album for Lord, How Come Me Here? Learn more.

Reflecting on his formative experiences as an Asbury student in the music department, Okpebholo shares: “Asbury’s music faculty are world-class, and the department is small, which means that I received personalized instruction which was a huge blessing and advantage. In addition to James Curnow and Dr. Ronald Holz, very few professors have impacted me as much as Dr. Vicki Bell. She was influential in cultivating my love for teaching composition and theory. All of these professors encouraged me, prayed for me, and served as spiritual mentors and role models for me.”

The Asbury University Music Department offers a major in Music (with emphases in composition and arranging, instrumental performance, pre-music therapy, vocal performance, and church music leadership), a major in Music Education (with emphases in general music education, instrumental music education, vocal/choral education, and combined instrumental/vocal education), and a minor in Music. Learn more.