An immersive performance of William Levi Dawson’s symphonic masterpiece from 1934 and Jessie Montgomery’s powerful work Soul Force from 2015

Audience invited to sit among the orchestra members 

Friday, May 13, 2022 at 8pm
The DiMenna Center for Classical Music | 450 West 37th Street | New York, NY

Tickets: $20-75 at Audience members must show proof of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and wear masks while in attendance.

New York, NY – Experiential Orchestra (EXO), led by Music Director James Blachly, will present an immersive performance of William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony on Friday, May 13, 2022 at 8pm at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music (450 W. 37th St., NYC). In EXO’s signature fashion, the audience will have the unique opportunity to experience this piece, rapidly being acknowledged as one of America’s greatest symphonies, musically as well as physically, sitting near or even inside the orchestra and exploring the musical themes in DiMenna’s beautiful performance hall. The concert, which will be the first time the full EXO orchestra has gathered since the start of the pandemic, will pair the Dawson with Soul Force by Jessie Montgomery, premiered with Blachly conducting in 2015 as a part of The Dream Unfinished’s inaugural season. 

“William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, after decades of neglect, is beginning to be recognized across the country as one of the truly great American symphonies. The evening will be a combination celebration for our Grammy Award for our recording of Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Prison, and an immersive concert, exploring this American masterpiece,” says EXO Music Director James Blachly. “We have fallen in love with this music, and we are excited to celebrate this piece with our audience.” 

The Dawson symphony was also the centerpiece of Blachly’s week-long residency at Montclair State University in March 2022 featuring the music of Jessie Montgomery. He adds, “We anticipate that the piece will be brand new to many in the audience, but with orchestras increasingly recognizing the brilliance of the music, this is a chance for music lovers to get to know the piece in a welcoming, fully-immersive experience. Musically, the Dawson symphony and Jessie Montgomery’s Soul Force create a powerful dialogue.”

William Levi Dawson is best known for his work at the Tuskegee Institute, where he founded and conducted the Tuskegee Institute Choir from 1931-1956, and for his settings of spirituals for solo voice and choir. It was while on tour with Tuskegee that he first showed the score of his symphony to Leopold Stokowski, who would premiere the work with the Philadelphia Orchestra, perform it in Carnegie Hall in a performance broadcast nationally, and eventually, in 1963, record the revised work.

The symphony is gathering interest and acclaim; according to the Schirmer/Wise Music Classical website, there were a total of just seven performances of the work between 2010-2019. The publisher now registers 37 performances in the past two years alone, with major US orchestras slated to perform the piece next season. 

The Experiential Orchestra was founded by conductor James Blachly as a way to invite audiences more deeply into the sound and powerful experience of the orchestra. Their Grammy-winning world-premiere recording of Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Prison (1930) was critically acclaimed in The New York TimesGramophoneThe New YorkerThe Guardian, and many other publications. The orchestra is drawn from top-level New York freelancers, many of whom are soloists in their own right, or members of other elite ensembles. EXO’s recent performance of the music of Arvo Pärt at The Metropolitan Museum of Art was hailed by Musical America as “laudable” and “technically immaculate.”

In addition to giving its signature concerts at Lincoln Center, EXO prepares innovative programs which have invited audiences to dance to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, welcomed them to sit and lie down inside the orchestra itself, surrounded them with thirty-six oboes and bassoons in performances of music by Lully and Rameau, and performed Symphonie fantastique and Petrushka with original circus choreography by The Muse in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Recent concerts have been presented at Roulette and National Sawdust in Brooklyn, Lincoln Center with Young Patrons of Lincoln Center, Americas Society, and in partnership with Musicambia and Groupmuse at the Masonic Temple; concerts have also been presented at Penn State University, American University, and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

James Blachly is a Grammy-winning conductor dedicated to enriching the concert experience by connecting with audiences in memorable and meaningful ways. His world premiere recording of English composer Dame Ethel Smyth’s 1930 masterpiece The Prison, released on Chandos Records, won a 2021 Grammy Award and was widely acclaimed. He currently serves as Music Director of Experiential Orchestra, is entering his sixth season as Music Director of the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra (PA), and is in increasing demand as a versatile guest conductor in diverse repertoire, with appearances this season with the New York Philharmonic, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a residency at Montclair State University. Blachly serves as Associate Editor and Orchestral Liaison for the African Diaspora Music Project, directed by Dr. Louise Toppin. Blachly’s innovative programming aims to increase audience engagement and empower audiences. With the Johnstown Symphony, he conducted the orchestra in a former steel mill in a concert that was featured on Katie Couric’s America Inside Out, and in three seasons the orchestras has increased season ticket sales by 50%; with the Experiential Orchestra, he has invited audiences to dance to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, sit within the orchestra at Lincoln Center, and engage with Symphonie fantastique and Petrushka with circus choreography in an ongoing collaboration with The Muse in Brooklyn. A strong supporter of composers of our time, Blachly has commissioned and premiered more than 50 works from composers such as Jessie Montgomery, Courtney Bryan, Kirsten Vollness, Viet Cuong, Michi Wiancko, Kate Copeland Ettinger, Patrick Castillo, Brad and Doug Balliett, and many others. In recent seasons, he has collaborated with soloists Julia Bullock, Paul Jacobs, Michelle Cann, Andre´s Ca´rdenes, Michael Chioldi, Karen Kim, Andrew Yee, Owen Dalby, Janna Baty, and more. Dedicated to finding new ways of empowering audiences, he is also in demand as a speaker on Listening as Leadership, bringing his expertise as a conductor and passion for music to Fortune 500 companies, schools, and other organizations.