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Written by Lindsay Westley   
Published on Tuesday, 07 January 2014 02:15

January 7, 2014 - Charlotte Blake Alston has worked with the Philadelphia Orchestra in different ways over the last 23 years. She is in her 20th season as host of Sound All Around, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s concert series for its youngest listeners, and she periodically hosts or narrates the orchestra’s family and school concerts. She has also written original narration for existing orchestral works and narrated the orchestra’s annual MLK Tribute Concert for nine consecutive years. She performed for LiveConnections at our October 27, 2013, ClassicAlive concert with harpist Elizabeth Hainen and spoke with us after the concert.

Charlotte Blake AlstonWhat appealed to you about the proposed collaboration for the October concert? How did it differ from the work you do with the Orchestra?
The word “connections” always piques my interest. Initially, Elizabeth asked me read Poe’s short story, “The Masque of the Red Death” as the lead-in to “Conte Fantastique” [André Caplet’s work for harp and string quartet]. I don’t need my arm twisted to do a public reading of any of Poe’s work.

Mary [Javian] also approached you about playing the kora. How did you fit that into the program?
Initially, I wasn’t sure how this “African harp” would fit on a program of classical music, but then I remembered the words of my first kora teacher, Djimo Kouyate, who used the Mandinka word: Sabu. “The kora is sabu,” he would say, “Connection. It is the connection between the people and their history.” And LiveConnections is a program that is entirely about making artistic connections.

Can you talk a little bit about why it's important to you to perform in lots of different venues and for different ages and audiences?
I believe that storytelling and spoken narrative — and particularly symphony narration — is an art form whose potential power is often minimized. Spoken text is sometimes relegated to the status of a metaphorical artistic stepchild, but the role of the narrator is to bring the text to life. I believe when the role of spoken narrative is diminished or minimized, the audience is deprived of the opportunity to experience the full power of a work and the intention of the composer. The composer’s intent is that the text and music work together, that they connect. The text is an integral part of the whole.

Can you talk a little bit about the culture of storytelling? How is it different to perform in the U.S. than it is to perform elsewhere?
In contemporary American culture people often associate storytelling with very young children when historically, the storytellers were the keepers of history and cultural identity. When I experienced storytelling in such countries as Ghana, Senegal, South Africa, Ireland, even southern China, the entire community gathered.

I’ve performed in schools, universities, museums, concerts halls, with classical and jazz musicians, orchestras, choirs, a dance company, in a refugee camp in northern Senegal, a maximum-security prison and juvenile detention centers in several states. As I walked away from the grounds after my last set at the Stimmen: Voices Festival in Basel, Switzerland, a woman ran up to me, calling after me. “Mees! Mees! English very hard. When I hear English, my ear close. But when I hear your stories, my ear open.” Connections.

Curator’s Note from Mary Javian, ClassicAlive curator: I’ve known Charlotte Blake Alston for the past 15 years through my connection to the Philadelphia Orchestra. Although Charlotte is known by many as a host, she really is a master storyteller. I was excited to show Philadelphia this side of her at LiveConnections’ October ClassicAlive concert with Elizabeth Hainen. I got even more excited when I learned she plays the kora, a 21-string bridge-harp often seen in West Africa, as part of her story-telling. It ended up being a great compliment to Elizabeth’s European concert harp. Charlotte's performance on this instrument was touching, and she had the entire audience singing along! 

LiveConnections is presenting four more ClassicAlive concerts this season. The next one is February 2 with cellist Gabriel Cabezas and dancer Chloe Felesina of BalletX. We hope you'll join us for more innovations and collaborations!


[Read PART 1 of the interview with Elizabeth Hainen here.]


[Images: Conrad Erb Photography]


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