As dusk was falling in West Philadelphia Wednesday evening, about two dozen string musicians congregated in Malcolm X Park, taking their violins, violas, and cellos out of their cases, setting up music stands, and lighting votive candles.
Through facemasks and physical distancing, they made sure to show each other gratitude for being together during the pandemic’s long dry spell of no performances.
“This is the first time I’ve gathered with musicians,” said Ashley Vines. “I’m a teacher, so I teach online. But this is the first time I’ve been with live musicians in four months. It’s been really powerful.”
They came to pay homage to Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black violinist and massage therapist who was killed by police in Colorado last summer. McClain was at a convenience store to buy iced tea and flagged by police as suspicious. The officers struggled to restrain him, putting him in a chokehold. After paramedics arrived, they injected McClain with ketamine. McClain went into cardiac arrest and died a few days later.
In the last few weeks, outdoor vigil concerts have been organized in cities around the country in his memory.
“I felt that I needed to be here,” said Akili Farrow, a violinist who grew up playing in youth orchestras all over Philadelphia. She now studies music at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.
“Elijah was a young Black man who lost his life to police. I have a young brother,” she said. “Elijah, I think he was on the spectrum. My brother is on the spectrum, it worries me personally because we have that connection.”
It has not been reported that McClain was a person on the autism spectrum. However his pleas with officers that were forcibly restraining him, “I’m just different,” has struck a chord with parents of children with autism.
The Philadelphia vigil was also in memory of a local teenager, Mouhamed Cisse, a promising cellist from West Philadelphia who was shot and killed last month. Police have not announced an arrest in the case.
Cisse was part of Musicopia, a music education program in the city. Vines was one of his teachers.
“He was in contact with a family that wanted him to grow in music. He played in orchestras at school. He was really involved with music and had a community that really loved him” said Vines. “Playing this music together can be a way for us to heal, to cope with our loss with Elijah and our loss with Mouhamed.”
The musicians selected “Lyric for Strings,” written by George Walker in 1946, shortly after he graduated from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Later, Walker would become the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for music.
“It’s to show, with Mr. Walker’s work, to let everyone know of Black participation in this Western art form,” said Renard Edwards, who has played viola with the Philadelphia Orchestra for 50 years. “It’s contemplative, longing, but still positive to see a bright tomorrow.”
About 100 people gathered to watch the performance, several wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts and holding signs. Others were there to enjoy the park on a warm summer evening, not previously aware that there would be such a performance in their neighborhood.
After the performance, the ensemble invited anyone who has an instrument to join them in playing a series of well-known African American spirituals and hymns. The ensemble swelled to about 40 musicians playing “My Lord, What a Morning,” “There is a Balm in Gilead,” and “Amazing Grace.”
One of the co-organizers of the performance, violinist Alberta Douglas, says it is aligned with the large Black Lives Matter movement and was meant to be healing.
“Music finds a way to soothe people’s soul, to calm everything down, calm the way people have been feeling about such terrible things that have been happening around the world,” she said.
The next vigil for Elijah McClain and Mouhamed Cisse will be on Sunday, at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
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