A More Convenient Season: Haber’s piece commemorates 1963 church bombing

Editor’s note: This piece is part of our series, Not Just Black and White: Civil Rights and the Jewish Community. An article about the Rosh Hashanah sermon Rabbi Milton Grafman gave shortly after attending the funeral for three of the four girls is here.

Internationally-renowned composer Yotam Haber has spent much of the last two years researching and learning about the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham. On Sept. 21, his work “A More Convenient Season” will have its world premiere at the Alys Stephens Center.

The piece was commissioned by the center and philanthropist Tom Blount to memorialize the Sept. 15, 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, a blast that killed four girls — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair — and brought the reality of the civil rights struggle to a new level.

Born in Holland, Haber grew up in Israel, Nigeria and Milwaukee. A Guggenheim Fellow, Haber is the artistic director of MATA, the non-profit organization founded by Philip Glass, that has, since 1996, been dedicated to commissioning and presenting new works by young composers from around the world.

The music will be performed by the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Morgan, with electronic compositions by Philip White.

For the performance, brothers David Harris of New York City and Quint Harris of Birmingham are preparing four of Birmingham’s most talented youth soloists and a female chorus, with accompaniment by Karen Krekelberg. The soloists are Margaret Marie Brewer of the University of Montevallo, Lillian Davis of the Alabama School of Fine Arts, Eliza Warden of Samford University and Racquel Williams of Homewood High School.

The chorus will include members of approximately 40 choirs from the Birmingham area and beyond, including singers from historic Tuskegee University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the 16th Street Baptist Church Children’s Choir and various church choirs and choral groups.

A short film, directed and produced by Academy Award-nominated director David Petersen, will accompany the piece.

Several years ago, Tom Blount brought Haber to Montgomery for the 25th anniversary of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and introduced him to Morris Dees, who gave them a private tour of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “I was deeply moved by it,” Haber said, and Blount suggested commissioning a piece from him. “I thought perhaps it would deal with the history of Alabama, civil rights and extremism,” with a string quartet.

Blount put Haber in touch with the Alys Stephens Center and the project grew as plans formed for the community-wide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Birmingham’s civil rights events.

Haber started combing the archives at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, especially the oral history project. He knew from the beginning that he would not write any original lyrics — the entire piece would be made up of text from that time, or from those who lived through that era.

He went through thousands of pages of transcripts, selecting around 200 phrases, “which is what you will hear the singers recite.” Many of the actual recordings will also be incorporated into the piece.

He cautioned that even though a lot of research went into the piece, “I’m not a historian. This isn’t a history lesson, it’s the work of an artist, an outsider’s look at the community.”

He also doesn’t want anyone to think he’s “coming here to tell Birmingham and Alabama their own story. They know it far better than I do. I’m creating a work of art through the filter of my own experiences of growing up in Europe and Israel and immigrating to America from Africa.”

His said his challenge was to “find the balance between honoring and commemorating events and people, and creating something that goes beyond just this one single event.”

The work’s title comes from a phrase in Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” where he speaks of an individual “who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Haber was struck that the letter “is directed not against the virulent racists, but against the moderates (who) say let’s wait for a more convenient season.”

That view is seen in every generation, Haber noted. “That really reverberated and resonated with me.”

One of the moderates addressed in the letter was Rabbi Milton Grafman of Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El, and Grafman would figure into the piece as it developed.

For those attending the performance, even before the piece begins, there will be oral history recordings playing in the lobby. The work is divided into three movements without interruption.

The first movement deals with the climate of fear that existed in Birmingham half a century ago.

In speaking about that movement, Haber tells the story of a white 11-year-old named Pam who had written to Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the main leaders of the movement in Birmingham, and told him that she stood with him. He invited her to a meeting at 16th Street Baptist Church, which she attended as the only white person there.

When she shared a can of Coke with a black teen, something unthinkable in the days of separate water fountains, she “felt flooded with the Holy Spirit.” It “speaks of a togetherness, a brotherhood,” he said.

The second movement is entitled “Questions,” with the choir split into two. The movement juxtaposes questions from FBI polygraph tests administered to Klansmen with so-called literacy questions that were used to keep blacks from being eligible to vote.

“Polygraph tests are the perfect dramatic vehicle,” Haber said. “They begin innocuously and ratchet up.”

The poll questions, though used for malevolent purposes, “are very mysterious in their beauty — how many stars in the sky, how high is height… they have a real beauty to them that masks the deep hatred.”

The movement also includes a setting of Psalm 133, better known in the Jewish world as “Hinei Ma Tov.” Haber said he heard the psalm in the recording of a sermon Rabbi Grafman had given days after the bombing. He decided to come up with his own setting rather than trying to work the traditional melody into the piece.

The third movement, “Negative Piece, Positive Piece,” comes largely from King’s letter.

The evening “is not going to be the normal concert, classical music experience,” Haber said.

Haber was “excited” when he heard Grafman’s sermon. “It really touches upon the same ideas — a call to action, a call to stand up when you see injustice. And he berates his congregation for standing idly by.”

During a January visit to Birmingham, he was told that Grafman’s son, Stephen, would be speaking about his father’s civil rights legacy at Emanu-El that night, so Haber made sure to attend.

For much of the last decade, Haber has been working on pieces detailing the Jewish history of Italy, especially Rome and Milan and the “special and insular musical tradition of Roman Jews, kept alive through the segregation of the Jews” in ghettoes.

Haber did not want to “write a work for Birmingham from the Jewish perspective. This event was not about the Jews.” He also did not want to limit its scope only to the church bombing.

ArtPlay, the Stephens Center’s home for education and outreach, will present a composition master class with Haber and young composers at 4 p.m. on Sept. 16, in the Jemison Concert Hall.

In early 2014, the Alys Stephens Center will hold a West Coast premiere in a performance featuring the CalArts Orchestra at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theatre near Los Angeles.

Theresa Harper Bruno, chair of the Stephens Center board, heard excerpts of all three movements recently. “It was incredibly uplifting and profoundly moving — like hearing a Beethoven symphony for the first time. It is music for the 21st century unlike anything I have ever heard before,” she said.

Bruno added, “I truly believe ‘A More Convenient Season’ will be a springboard for Yotam Haber to be one of the great composers of our time.”

“A More Convenient Season” will have its one Birmingham performance on Sept. 21 at 8 p.m. at the Alys Stephens Center. Tickets are available, from $39.50 to $62.50.