Eugene Rogers, who took over as artistic director of the Washington Chorus in 2020, is one of the people behind the world premiere of A Knee on the Neck, which will be performed in March by the National Philharmonic, Washington Chorus, and Howard University Chorale at Strathmore in North Bethesda and Capital One Hall in Tysons. We talked to him about the piece and how his new gig is going.
What directions do you want to take the chorus?
My biggest goal is to take the chorus where they’re hoping to go, which is to be more inclusive, diverse, accessible—an ensemble that is relevant for today and reflects the diverse communities and ideas of the Washington, DC, area. We are trying to do what it takes: hiring musicians, hiring soloists, having diverse collaborators, commissioning and championing disparate voices, having difficult conversations with our own community, and trying to broaden our community.
A Knee on the Neck was created by the composer Adolphus Hailstork—from a text by Ohio professor, poet, and librettist Herbert Martin—in response to the killing of George Floyd. Why is vocal music a good way to address the challenges that Black Americans have endured?
Vocal music opens people up in a way that sometimes words alone or music alone doesn’t. My goal is never necessarily to change minds. If it happens, that’s great, but I just want people to pause and reflect and consider so we can begin to at least dialogue. That’s what music—vocal music, choral music—does. Adolphus Hailstork is really one of our revered classical African-American composers. Herbert Martin, literally one week after the murder of George Floyd, had such a strong response—as we all did, especially those of us who are from the Africa-American community—that he wrote this entire text and sent it to Adolphus Hailstork without solicitation and without expectation, except with the idea that he would do something with it. Adolphus Hailstork began to set this to music.
What are you hoping that listeners leave with?
Well, several things. First of all, an appreciation for perhaps a new voice on the concert stage that they’ve never heard before—that we begin to give more people of color credit in classical music. I’m also hoping that they leave here taking a moment to remember the so many lives that have been lost due to social injustices. This one mainly being George Floyd, but also Breonna Taylor and Emmett Till, and then we can go on and on and on. I’m hoping that folks will at least be more open to critical discourse. You know, it’s so easy to think about “us and them.” It’s so easy to be dismissive and I feel like our country is more divided than ever. I’m hoping that people will open up to realizing that unless we all see this as our problem, we really are not going to make any improvements.
What has music meant to you during these tough couple of years?
It’s taken this long, honestly, for it to be okay for me to say how difficult the last two years have been. George Floyd’s murder had a huge impact on me, and I was equally disturbed by January 6. I have had to remind myself of not only the love of music but the love of community and people, so I don’t let anger get in the way of working with people and creating beauty. It came from a lot of prayer, talking to family, and listening to gospel music. When I’m really low, yes, it’s classical music, but equal to that is some gospel to help me get through whatever I’m feeling.
Why is the human voice so affecting in times of anxiety?
Let’s go all the way back to slavery, right? What got the slaves through slavery was the spiritual. Had it not been for singing, I don’t know where African Americans would be today. And I mean that sincerely, because not only do we sing for comfort—African Americans sing to communicate, to escape, to help each other. Then you think about the civil-rights movement. Yes, we had to deal with laws and a legal system, but what united so many people was those songs. I come from the school of thought that if you can speak, you can sing. It may not be as beautiful as Leontyne Price, but you can sing. And that cry is what has gotten African Americans—and any marginalized people or any human being—through those times together.
A version of this story ran in the March issue of Washingtonian. The interview has been edited and condensed.