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‘Soul-stirring’ concert explores relationship between Black, Jewish plight.

For the past decade Anthony Russell, a vocalist, composer, and arranger specializing in music in the Yiddish language, has identified other parallels between African American spirituals and Ashkenazi Jewish music. He will perform in Louisville Orchestra’s upcoming concert “Together in Song.” Courtesy The Louisville Orchestra

By: Maggie Menderski | Louisville Courier Journal

As vocalist Anthony Russell learned a Yiddish piece about a woeful traveler far away from their family, he noticed it felt like another, very culturally different song — the African American spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

But perhaps, the two aren’t so unlike at all. Both songs are written in the same scale and their melodies are remarkably similar. The stories they tell of separation from family and loneliness are soulful and incredibly moving.

What started as a personal exploration for Russell, who is Black and Jewish, has morphed into “Together in Song,” a collaboration with the Grammy-nominated Louisville Orchestra led by Teddy Abrams for a diverse performance that explores the sounds of unity and shared histories through the musical lens of Black and Jewish roots music. For the past decade Russell, a vocalist, composer, and arranger specializing in music in the Yiddish language, has identified other parallels between African American spirituals and Ashkenazi Jewish music.

“These songs sounded so much like each other, and they had so much to say to each other, both musically and thematically,” Russell told the Courier Journal.

The upcoming performance on Jan. 13 at the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall, 501 W. Main St., marks the third year the Louisville Orchestra has explored the rich and intertwining musical traditions of Black and Jewish communities. The concert merges the two cultures in a way that celebrates the music and introduces the audience to the idea that these musical languages are not so different, Graham Parker, chief executive of the Louisville Orchestra, told The Courier Journal.

Both traditions have had a profound cultural impact on the Louisville community and the world, and music has the power to transcend boundaries and bring people together.

“This concert, ultimately, will demonstrate that musically — in terms of message, in terms of history, in terms of hopefulness around both of these communities — that peace, understanding, and love transcends, and hope transcends,” Parker said. “That’s what we hope we will ultimately express in every piece of music on stage.”

Russell said it’s difficult to put into words exactly what “Together in Song” will sound like. The program embraces both classic and contemporary music and touches on work songs, folk songs, blues, traditional synagogue music, gospel music, funk, hip-hop and symphonic music, and a slew of other genres.

That melting pot will create a mood that reflects the hardships and joys of each culture that reaches back across two tumultuous centuries.

Joining the orchestra and Russell is a first-class line-up of musicians and artists, including clarinetist David Krakauer, accordionist Dmitri Gaskin, soprano Angela Brown, trombonist Fred Wesley, and loop artist DJ SoCalled, The St. Stephen Mass Choir, under Kevin James’s leadership, and vocalist Jason Clayborn.

“What you see reflected in the line-up is indicative of the many places, the many sounds, and the many worlds that (Jewish and African American) music create,” Russell said.

Parker added that some of the most important parts of this collaboration happened well before the artists joined together in Louisville to rehearse. The Jewish Heritage Fund and the Brown Forman Foundation have been big supporters of the project. All the key players gathered in Louisville, which has a history of racial tension and was the backdrop for Breonna Taylor’s death, for two different workshops in the months leading up to the performance.

People from both cultures gathered together to explore the history, music and parallels Russell has been realizing and embracing in his work for more than a decade. In its infancy, Russell’s work was on a very small scale — just himself and his longtime collaborator, accordionist Dmitri Gaskin.

Now, through “Together in Song,” it’s growing into the monumental blending of so many celebrated musicians.

“This concept will make a very compelling case that these two respective cultures and their interactions with each other have created some of the most interesting, and moving, and dynamic music that has ever happened in the history of the world,” Russell said.