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Collaboration between Eastman and Ganondagan creates musical gift to the Haudenosaunee people

A collaboration between the Eastman School of Music and Ganondagan State Historic Site is being called a “gift to the Haudenosaunee people.”

“How Bright the Sunlight” marries narration by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo and music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Anthony Davis. The Eastman Philharmonia will premiere the new work Monday at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre.

Harjo is the first Native American poet laureate, and her narration for “How Bright the Sunlight” combines her poetry with the traditional Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address.

Timothy Long, who is conducting the performance, has been a key part of bringing this collaboration together. Long is of Muscogee (Creek) and Choctaw descent, and grew up on a reservation in Oklahoma. He came to the Eastman School of Music as a student more than 30 years ago, and recently returned as the music director of Eastman Opera Theatre starting in 2018.

In addition to conducting opera, he has an extensive career playing piano, especially with singers, in a range of historical and contemporary classical music.

To keep track of the music he learns, Long sometimes makes a timeline of how the pieces relate to each other historically. At one point, he drew a line down the piece of paper where he was writing one of these timelines, and on the opposite side started writing down dates of conflicts between the U.S. government and Native Americans.

“It was shocking,” he says. “Classical music history to me had always been like a fairy tale in a certain way. But when I lined it up with dates that my people were being oppressed, suddenly, that entire graph of history popped to life. And it made me so angry. And it made me think I can't just keep going on with my very fortunate life.”

He was also profoundly moved by conducting an opera called “Missing” by Marie Clements and Brian Current about the thousands of missing Indigenous women in Canada.

Eastman Opera Theatre Music Director Timothy Long is pursuing projects to connect classical music with the experiences of contemporary Native Americans
Eastman Opera Theatre Music Director Timothy Long is pursuing projects to connect classical music with the experiences of contemporary Native Americans

“Surrounded by these people telling their story every day and viscerally feeling what they felt as we performed, it meant so much,” he says.

These performances, he adds, “changed the course of things for me, and I knew I had to start doing these kinds of projects in the future.”

Long is now pursuing new ways to connect classical music and the experiences of contemporary Native Americans, including scholarships to support music studies for Cherokee students and commissioning new art songs from indigenous composers, including 2022 Pulitzer prize winner Raven Chacon.

And conducting the premiere of “How Bright the Sunlight” builds on a connection he made as a student decades ago. Long played a piano recital at Ganondagan at the invitation of Jeanette Jemison, program director of the Friends of Ganondagan.

When one of Jemison’s board members recently recommended Long to her as someone she should meet at Eastman, she was delighted to realize that Long was the same person she had met when he was a student at the memorable piano recital.

Ganondagan didn’t have a piano, so Long got one donated by Yamaha for the outdoor concert. And despite sneezing and having his eyes running due to seasonal allergies, Jemison remembers him enthusiastically suggesting more performances.

Now reconnecting decades later, Long and Jemison hope to build a more sustained collaboration between their institutions and communities.

“You can’t do everything on your own,” Jemison says, “and it’s just important that you reach out to your community. And it’s important for the community also to reach out to us to get to know us, to understand us, as Native American people, as indigenous people of this area, and to help us break down some of those barriers, and also to learn more about who we are.”

Ganondagan has done this in the visual arts with several organizations in Rochester through the Earth Altars project, and Jemison now sees this musical collaboration as the beginning of building a new relationship with Eastman.

As he works with students now, Long is struck by how he sees himself in them, which has led him to think about the way his approach to music has changed over the years. One of his goals, he says, is to "get them to skip some of the steps I went through that were unneeded.”

Whether conducting students in an 18th-century opera or leading them in this newly composed work honoring the Haudenosaunee, Long sees his job as teaching people to listen to each other, as well as play together. He hopes that this experience can help bring them to “a common place.”

If you go

You can hear the premiere of “How Bright the Sunlight” at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 5, at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Narrator Joy Harjo and bassist James Van DeMark are the soloists, with the Eastman Philharmonia conducted by Timothy Long.

Peter and Ansley Jemison from Ganondagan will host a pre-concert conversation with Long and composer Anthony Davis at 6 p.m.

Mona Seghatoleslami is the Music Director, host and producer on WXXI Classical 91.5 FM weekdays from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. She also hosts the lunchtime concert series Live From Hochstein Wednesdays at 12:10 p.m., interviews musicians, produces special programs, and works on any project she can find that helps connect people and music in our community through WXXI.