“Healing Tones,” a new composition commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, opens with the sound of a ram’s horn or shofar — a traditional Jewish musical instrument.
This particular shofar comes from the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed during a mass shooting that happened last October. At Thursday night’s premiere, it will be performed by Audrey Glickman, who witnessed and survived the shooting; she was leading a morning prayer when the gunman opened fire.
“We all need healing tones, don’t we?” said Glickman during a rehearsal break at the Kimmel Center. “Tree of Life was asked, how could we refuse? It’s our honor to do this. And the shofar is a call to action. We are working on a call to action to come out of the shooting.”
“Healing Tones” is a piece for orchestra and chorus written over the last two years. Composer Hannibal Lokumbe has been channeling ancient ancestors — he said his great-grandmother was a Cherokee shaman — and considering current events. He added the shofar in response to the synagogue shooting, but he never thought he could get Glickman to come and play it.
“I had not aimed that high,” he said. “I would have settled for one of the horns from the synagogue. But, lo and behold, not only would we get a shofar, but a [player] who was present at the massacre.”
“I consider it an honor,” said Glickman. “It’s exciting. It’s a brand new piece of music. It’s wonderful. I think he put every possible emotion into that piece of music.
Lokumbe — a trumpeter from Texas who for decades played and recorded jazz under his given name, Marvin Peterson — has lately been thinking deeply about humankind’s spiritual flaws. The piece in three movements is a call for peace, a meditation on anger, and a warning siren for humanity.
He calls those movements veils “because you can move one step forward of your understanding of something on Monday and then on Tuesday recede 20 steps backwards. But when a veil of understanding is lifted from your consciousness, you’re never the same.”
The piece opens with “Tones of Peace,” featuring the shofar, the full orchestra, and a chorus representing the voice of ancestors. “We are spirit of flesh and blood made,” they sing.
The second veil, “Tones of War,” gets ugly.
“I clearly know who the choir represents in the rest of the piece, but there’s a section in Veil Two where I’m not sure if it’s the ancestors,” said Lokumbe. “There’s a section where I personally want to destroy that part of me that would be drawn to anger. Ultimately, it addresses the war within us as individuals.”
The choir is joined by three soloists representing characters: a shaman, the eternal mother, and an everlasting figure. The choral director, J. Donald Dumpson, has collaborated with Lokumbe a few times in the past and says this piece is “intense.”
“The piece is a call to humanity to find a way to love one another, to put down the sword,” said Dumpson. “There’s a moment when there is gunfire, a very tense moment that is eradicating the pain we cause each other.”
It was a part Lokumbe did not enjoy writing, but he says it was his duty.
“It didn’t sit well with me,” he said. “It reminded me that, spiritually, as a race of beings, we’re struggling with things that should have been resolved ages ago.”
“Tones of Healing” features an argument between the shaman and the eternal mother. Lokumbe imagines the shaman has retreated from humanity, against the pleadings from the mother, withholding his healing powers from the rest of the world in order to sequester himself inside his own head.
“You don’t have a right to just live in your own splendor,” said Lokumbe. “There’s no such thing as safe. No matter where you live, there’s no safety. I don’t care how far you run from the city into the suburbs, humans are humans wherever you are. That’s what violence teaches us.”
To Lokumbe, this composition is less a work of creativity than conductivity. He says he acted as a channel for voices of ancient ancestors, who provided him with 90 percent of the work.
The piece ends with annihilation, and emergence of a new kind of human.
“It will be the end to all that you know,” the choir sings. “And the beginning of all you have yet to know.”
“I would have just said, ‘It will be the end of all you know,” said Lokumbe. “But the ancestors said, ‘And the beginning of all you have yet to know.’ That part went beyond my feeble understanding.”