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Walnut Hill School for the Arts

Music Department's January Project Focuses on "Seven Last Words of the Unarmed"

January 14, 2022

The Music Department’s 2022 January Project focuses on the influential work “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” for chorus and ensemble by Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson. The subjects of this multi-movement choral piece are seven Black men killed by police or authority figures; Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Kenneth Chamberlain, Amadou Diallo, and John Crawford.

In addition to rehearsing and performing the work with conductor Erica Washburn (Director of Choral Activities at NEC), Walnut Hill students will have discussions and workshops led by an array of distinguished guest speakers:

Garrett McQueen holds a Bachelor of Music in Bassoon from the University of Memphis, where he studied with Lecolion Washington, and a Master of Music in Bassoon from the University of Southern California, where he studied with Judith Farmer. In addition to working as the Executive Producer and co-host of the TRILLOQUY podcast and President of TrillWerks Media, Garrett works as an equity consultant, guest speaker, curator, and presenter at the intersection of race and “classical” music. He serves on the board of the American Composers Forum as the Equity Committee Chair. He maintains leadership/advisory positions with the Black Opera Alliance, the Gateways Music Festival, and the Lakes Area Music Festival. Off the clock, Garrett spends most of his free time with his friend and podcast co-host, Scott Blankenship, and his boyfriend, Dell.

Joel Thompson, best known for his work “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” which premiered in November 2015 by the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club with Dr. Eugene Rogers, won the 2018 American Prize for Choral Composition. His pieces have been performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Master Chorale, Los Angeles Master Chorale, EXIGENCE, and the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. Currently a student at the Yale School of Music, Thompson was also a 2017 post-graduate fellow in Arizona State University’s Ensemble Lab/Projecting All Voices Initiative and a composition fellow at the 2017 Aspen Music Festival and School, where he studied with composers Stephen Hartke and Christopher Theofanidis and won the 2017 Hermitage Prize. Thompson is a proud Emory alum, graduating with a B.A. in Music in 2010 and an M.M. in Choral Conducting in 2013.

Aaron P. Dworkin personifies arts leadership, entrepreneurship, and community commitment with an unwavering passion for the arts and diversity and their role in society. This passion led to him founding the Sphinx Organization in 1997, creating the nation’s leading arts organization with the mission of transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts. An esteemed educator, Aaron served as dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD) from 2015 to 2017, ranked among the top performing arts schools in the nation. He is currently a tenured full professor of arts leadership and entrepreneurship at SMTD and serving as a Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Aaron has received extensive national recognition for his leadership and service to communities, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 2005 and President Obama’s first appointment to the National Council on the Arts in 2010. 

Recognized worldwide as one of today’s most exciting vocal stars, Denyce Graves P ’22 continues to garner unparalleled widespread and critical acclaim in performances across four continents. Ms. Graves has become particularly well-known to operatic audiences for her portrayals of the title roles in Carmen and Samson et Dalila. These signature roles have brought her to the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna Staatsoper, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, San Francisco Opera, Opéra National de Paris, Lyric Opera of Chicago, among others. In the 2020-2021 season, Ms. Graves made her debut at the Glimmerglass Festival as the title role in the world premiere of The Passion of Mary Caldwell Dawson. She also performs in a program hosted by Tulsa Opera, entitled Greenwood Overcomes, honoring the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Additionally, she participates in a program hosted by the Trust of the National Mall, as well as a special presented by PBS entitled “United in Song: Celebrating the Resilience of America.” 

Stanford Thompson serves as the Founder and Executive Director of Play On Philly and founding member of El Sistema USA and the National Instrumentalist Mentoring and Advancement Network. A TED Fellow, Stanford believes that music education is a powerful tool for positive change. Mr. Thompson serves on the faculty of the Global Leaders Program and regularly presents at major universities and music conservatories about leadership, entrepreneurship, and social justice. As a consultant, he has guided the development of dozens of music programs across the United States and collaborated with major orchestras, higher education institutions, and arts organizations to help provide equitable access to the arts. As a trumpeter, Stanford has performed as a soloist and member with major orchestras around the world and continues to perform. Stanford is a native of Atlanta, a graduate of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Talent Development Program, and holds degrees from The Curtis Institute of Music and the New England Conservatory’s Sistema Fellows Program.

Candace Olusola ’08 is a graduate of Walnut Hill’s Music Department and recently left her career as a pharmacist to become a motivational public speaker and life coach, inspiring others to fulfill their potential. She is also the creator and host of the podcast, “First Paso,” whose themes are Healing, Health, Humor, Honesty, and Heart. Candace holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Biochemistry from South Adventist University and a Master’s of Public Health from The George Washington University - Milken Institute School of Public Health, and a Pharm.D. from the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy.

As Dr. Eugene Rogers, Director of the Michigan Men’s Glee Club that premiered this work, says in his video introduction: “Regardless of one’s political opinion, we can all agree on the value of human life.”

Our goal is to approach this project with this in mind while allowing for open discussion. Rather than dividing us, music has the power to bring us together.

Because of the pandemic, we have shifted many of our workshops and presentations to an online format. We are also taking several necessary COVID-safety precautions as we prepare the piece.

For those who would like to hear “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” watch a beautiful recording featuring the University Michigan Men’s Glee Club in the original version for men’s chorus below: