Spokane Symphony will perform world premiere of a new work by Portland composer Sydney Guillaume
What better way to express America’s diversity than by having more than 120 musicians sing a song celebrating food? Portland-based composer Sydney Guillaume can’t think of a juicier metaphor for our country than our own cultural hodgepodge.
That’s why Guillaume, 40, collaborated with lyricist and operatic baritone Lloyd Reshard Jr. to write A Taste of Freedom, a 10-minute orchestral and choral piece about food. A Taste of Freedom will be premiered this weekend at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox by the Spokane Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Chorale and Eastern Washington University Symphonic Choir.
“I see food as a metaphor for the melting pot that America is known for,” said Guillaume. “There’s a line in the piece that describes ‘you and me’ as ‘the taste’ that reminds us of home… There’s hope in sitting down to eat with others.”
“we cultivate our patience long;
The wisdom work does.
Eat borscht or soup Joumou Joumou
As we await our fate.
Everyone is kneading the dough of freedom
For cooking or baking & rising.
Whatever we offer;
America is our price.”
Haitian-born Guillaume said he was captivated by the lyrics when he read Reshard’s line, which referred to the Haitian dish joumou joumou, a soup traditionally eaten to celebrate the country’s independence and won in 1804.
“That mention of joumou joumou was a line I used in the first choral piece I ever wrote that Reshard sang when we were at school together,” Guillaume said.
Reshard and Guillaume, who graduated from the University of Miami in 2004, were in college choir together, where Guillaume was commissioned by a professor to write his first-ever choral composition. Eventually, after this piece was accepted and sung by choirs around the world, Guillaume began collecting enough choral commissions to make a living out of it ever since. His music has been featured at numerous conferences and international festivals such as the American Choral Directors Association, the World Choir Games and the Cork International Choral Festival in Ireland.
Guillaume has written for renowned choirs such as the Grammy-nominated Seraphic Fire, Westminster Chorus, University of Miami Frost Chorale, Nathaniel Dett Chorale, Illinois Wesleyan University Collegiate Choir, St. Louis Chamber Singers and Miami Children’s Chorus. He also writes film music, having composed original film and documentary scores for Los Angeles-based Loyola Productions.
Although his first love had been writing film scores, Guillaume soon realized he could use his choral stage to elevate his native country of Haiti.
Over the past two decades he has become something of a musical ambassador for Haitian culture, spreading a positive image of his homeland and introducing audiences to his Haitian Creole language, known as Kreyòl.
He writes most of his works in Kreyòl, often using texts provided by his poet father, Gabriel T. Guillaume. For the Spokane Symphony assignment, however, Guillaume wrote “A Taste of Freedom” in English, a language he learned when he moved to the United States nearly 30 years ago.
“I’ve spent much of my career sharing Haitian culture through my music,” said Guillaume. “But this (Made in America theme) is a great opportunity to do something for my other home, America.”
Kristina Ploeger-Hekmatpanah, director of choral activities at EWU and former director of the Spokane Symphony Chorale, had the idea of commissioning a piece from the Oregon-based Haitian composer more than a year ago. Her original idea, which Guillaume welcomed, was to have Guillaume set to music the lyrics of poet Amanda Gorman’s inaugural speech for President Joe Biden.
“It turned out we couldn’t get the rights to Amanda Gorman’s speech, but[Guillaume]was still willing to come up with a piece that fit the theme of the concert (‘Made in America’),” Ploeger- Hekmatpanah. “We talked about how food is a great identifier for people, regardless of their culture. We laughed and talked about what kind of food means what to different people.”
“Our Eating tastes of freedom;
Our food tastes of peace;
Our food tastes like home;
Sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.”
My food tastes of joy;
My food fills you up.
Leave the taste, it’s you and me
Remind us that this is your home.
America, our home.
America, our home.”
With A Taste of Freedom, Guillaume also took on the task of writing music not only for the choir but also for the orchestra as a whole. He has written a few pieces for full orchestra in the past, but his 2020 premiere of a large orchestral piece in Haiti has been postponed due to the pandemic.
One of Guillaume’s priorities has been to satisfy musicians who crave meaty parts they can sink their teeth into. “I know what it’s like to be in the choir and sing the baritone line when it’s so boring,” he laughed. “So I don’t just think about the audience when I’m writing parts. I want to make sure every musician has something fun to play.”
Ploeger-Hekmatpanha said the rhythmic nature of his work is very appealing.
“If you look at collegiate or professional level choral music, tons of it is just harmonically tacky, which is what we love and everyone loves to swim in,” she said. “But you have to think of the audience and remember that they want to hear a rhythm, something they can tap their toes to.”