Worlds Collide: ASO, Choral Society, and Jazz Ensemble
For Family Weekend, Amherst musical ensembles collaborated on a performance to celebrate 100 years since voting rights were extended to women in the U.S. Managing Arts and Living Editor Alex Brandfonbrener ’23 recounts the powerful and thought-provoking concert.
On Saturday, Nov. 5, the Amherst College Jazz Ensemble, Symphony Orchestra, and Choral Society joined forces for a Family Weekend concert. Originally planned for 2020, the concert featured original compositions celebrating the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed voting rights for women.
The show opened with three pieces from the Jazz Ensemble, which highlighted the melodic flexibility of the group and its talented soloists. First was “Contemplation” by McCoy Tyner (arranged by Bruce Diehl), a slow funk that reminded me of John Coltrane. The melody began steady and smooth, slowly building up energy as it progressed into the solos. The standout soloist was Ian Behrstock ’26 on trumpet, who experimented with fast and intricate riffs but still reflected the restrained sound of the piece. It was thoughtful and meditative, having both a questioning feel and a protesting tone, as if dissatisfied.
Next was “Soliloquy,” an original composition by composer Erica Seguine, who also conducted the piece. It was melodic and remorseful, rolling and brewing with emotion. I was struck by the dynamism of its layered sounds: outspoken brass and saxophone riffs on top of expressive vocals. Again, I commend the soloist, Camila Bonilla ’26 on tenor saxophone, who improvised comfortably and playfully. The piece ended like a whisper, slowly drifting to silence, with an unresolved, slightly unsettling feeling.
The Jazz Ensemble finished their set with “Peace,” a short Horace Silver number arranged by Dan Langa ’18. After the band settled into the vibe, I enjoyed the song’s positive mood. It was the only piece out of the three that resolved its phrases with major chords, as if the sun was peeking through dark clouds on a rainy day.
Up next was the Symphony Orchestra, performing four acts from Margaret Bonds’ “Montgomery Variations.” Conductor Mark Lane Swanson prefaced it with a few words about Bonds, a Black composer who drew inspiration from her friendship with Langston Hughes. The piece was dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. and recounts the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, when Black southerners refused to continue to abide by the racist Jim Crow laws.
Act One (“Decision”) was declarative and pulsing with energy. Fueled by strong brass notes that felt courageous, it was clear which part of the story of Montgomery protests this was: the moment when people decided to act. Act Two (“Prayer Meeting”) was heartfelt but tense, evoking hopeful sentiments amid adversity. It had a religious sound, influenced by Black Southern Gospel. I was struck by the orchestra’s careful playing, through provocative oboe sounds and a single pizzicato note by the strings to finish the movement.
Act Three (“March”) evoked the resilient feelings of the 1965 march from Selma to Mongomery. Advocating for equal voting rights, the march was led by King and took place 10 years after the boycotts. It started small and slow, with just bassoons and cellos, adding on different sections of the orchestra as the piece continued. By the end, the whole orchestra was rallying together, and it was an exciting progression to witness. Act Four (“Benediction”) closed the orchestral section of the concert with a sweeping theme. It was an uplifting conclusion, juxtaposing regret and longing with optimism. At this point in the story, the celebratory march is over, but the disappointing sting of enduring systemic injustices remains.
To finish the concert, the Choral Society and a subset of the orchestra performed “Say Your Name,” an original composition by Reena Esmail that directly tied the music to the theme of voting rights through a libretto written by Rebecca Gayle Howard. The chorus sang “Fear!” again and again to open the piece, accentuating the chaotic and resentful instrumentation. It was an oppressive start that felt like a reflection of the precarious state of global democracy today.
From the cacophony, a single voice rang out — from soprano soloist Sherezade Panthaki. It was a surprising moment because she had snuck onstage, slowly moving to the front before I had even noticed. She sang hauntingly and impactfully, and it felt inquisitive and fearful, as if she were the voice of democracy, at risk of being silenced. At one point, all of the performers — singers and instrumentalists alike — inhaled suddenly. Panthaki replied, “Breathe…” It was a striking moment that put the themes of the concert into perspective; if we don’t take a moment to frankly look at our democracy, it might disappear before we know it.
The piece then took a sharp turn, sliding into a slanted, jaunty mood. The singers embraced a feeling of conflict, as Panthaki sang “I do not know,” to which the chorus replied, “That’s right, / You do not know.” It was a bit alarming to hear.
But soon, the piece resolved itself as Panthaki voiced her character’s resolve: “Remember — my name is Democracy.” She was joined by student soloist Alice Rogers ’23, who held her own against the Panthaki’s professional chops with balance and confidence.
To finish, the chorus read out the names of famous female trailblazers — Susan B. Anthony, Toni Morrison, Emily Dickinson — on top of a lively but resilient melody. The libretto closed with prominent calls to action that made it exactly clear what we should do to protect democracy: “Raise your hand / Pull the lever / Stuff the box / Trust the ballot / Hush the bigots.”
It was heartening to see such a strong collaboration between the three groups in the concert, something relatively uncommon at Amherst. I was impressed by the amount of time that must have gone into practicing, rehearsing, and coordinating with each other, especially since the groups had all performed within the last week.
I was also struck by the political nature of the concert: I often overlook music as a medium for activism. Compared to other art forms, it is easy to ignore a lyric here and there or the contexts of a singer or composer’s personal story. Still, within one week of the election, the message of the performance was clear: Vote!