The New York Philharmonic is a world-renowned symphony orchestra that has been around since 1842.
And recently, Grace Moore, a 12-year-old Black composer from Brooklyn, enjoyed a special musical honor in the organization’s prestigious lore.
Last month, musicians from the Philharmonic premiered “Summer,” an original piece composed by Grace. She became one of the youngest composers to have her work showcased by the world-class symphony.
“I feel really honored to be able to do this, that I have this talent of music,” she told The Atlanta Black Star. “Just to have it played by world-class musicians, I thought that was really cool to have that opportunity that not everyone can get.”
Grace spent about three weeks writing “Summer,” a fanciful arrangement that harmonizes cellos, flutes and clarinets. She was 11 at the time.
She composed the guileless piece against the tumultuous backdrop of an actual solstice season. The dog days of 2020 were marked by global pandemic, racial tensions, a raucous presidential election campaign ,and roiling protests that stretched across continents. Grace said she composed her piece to give people an escape from those sobering issues.
“Basically, I was thinking about the current events that were all happening at the time,” she said. “Like coronavirus and the losses that people were having. And I decided to make a happy piece to get people’s minds off all of that.”
Summer was the third piece Grace has composed. She’s working on a variation that adds a piano arrangement. The United Nations Music Society will perform that version during a Human Rights Day virtual concert Dec. 10.
Grace is a seventh grader who loves math, speaks four languages — she’s working on a fifth in Latin — and is a black belt in taekwando. She recently started learning to play the saxophone. But her first instrument is the piano.
Clara Stewart Moore, Grace’s mother, set her on that path at an early age after noticing her natural talent for playing the keys.
“She just sort of was moving her fingers along this little Sanyo, and it was as if she was channeling Mozart,” Clara said. “I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, she’s making some sort of piano sound, and it sounds good.’ It sounded like classical.”
Clara bought a piano to nurture that gift because she wanted to equip her daughter with a form of artistic expression.
“I think what I was trying to do was just give her a sense of, I guess, wonder; and also a sense of just being open to what may exist within herself,” she said. “And I think music really does that. I think music is something that can bring you joy, it triggers a lot of different times and different spaces and different memories that are sort of intuitively locked in the body. And also it helps in terms of healing wounds. So what I wanted her to know, was that there is a variation of ways to tap into your secret power.”
For the past two years, Grace has been part of the Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers after-school program, which exposes musically inclined kids 13 and younger to the world of orchestral arrangements. The program, which teaches in-depth musical theory, celebrated its 25-year anniversary this year. Philharmonic musicians have premiered more than 100 young composers’ musical works over that quarter century.
“For us, it’s really sort of finding students that are just interested in music and creating music, and having their creative voices heard on a larger scale,” said Gary Padmore, program director for the Very Young Composers. “We’re not necessarily just getting the quote-unquote child prodigy. We’re getting the student that may not even demonstrate or recognize their own talent. … And when you actually put them in the driver’s seat, so to speak, especially like being a composer, it’s a completely transformative experience.”
Jordan Millar and Camryn Cowan, two of Grace’s predecessors in the program, have also been spotlighted. The full orchestra performed Millar’s “Boogie Down Uptown” and Cowan’s “Harlem Shake” in concerts at four parks across New York City in 2018. More than 82,000 people attended the concert series.
Earlier this summer, Millar released an arrangement of the civil rights gospel anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
Meanwhile, the Helsinki Philharmonic performed one of Cowan’s compositions as part of a virtual summit in August that commemorated the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s ratification.
The Philharmonic traditionally plays at David Geffen Hall, a concert hall inside the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts in the heart of Manhattan. But coronavirus changed that. The famed venue was no longer an option for classical music and opera. So the orchestra took their instruments to the streets for a series of impromptu concerts dubbed the NY Phil Bandwagon.
Small ensembles from the orchestra traveled to all five boroughs in a customized pickup truck and set up for live performances in parks, on street corners in plazas and on sidewalks. Over the course of eight weeks beginning Aug. 28, the Bandwagon ensembles staged 81 pop-up concerts throughout the city.
They did nine such performances the weekend in mid-October when the Philharmonic debuted Grace’s composition. She and her mother attended five of the performances.
“It even made some people cry,” Clara said. “Because I think it touched them so deeply, emotionally. And that’s exactly what I feel when she creates. And so I’m just so proud and really overjoyed and very, I guess, grateful as well, that she’s able to do it. And it has been shared, and people are feeling that sense of gratitude and peacefulness that she wanted to express during those times.”
Grace was featured on CBS This Morning during the run. Deborah Borda, president and CEO of New York Philharmonic, acknowledged that symphony orchestras have traditionally been seen as white, elite bastions. But Borda said it’s time “we begin to live in the 21st century” and start inviting people of color and composers of all backgrounds. That caught the favor of Gayle King, the show’s anchor.
“I like seeing people like Grace Moore, who’s 12 years old. Who’s a little girl of color,” King said. “I like what Deborah Borda said, ‘It’s really a white, elite bastion.’ And so it’s 2020, opening up the doors and just the message that it sends. I love the confidence of Grace.”
Grace still seemed to be grasping the attention she’s received from composing “Summer.”
“I don’t know, I just made it,” she said. “I just thought it was a song I happened to make and people happened to like it.”
But for mom, it’s been a proud moment seeing her bashful daughter get recognized for her rare gift.
“She’s always been very humble about her abilities and what she can do,” Clara said. “It seemingly comes very natural to her. So I’m overjoyed by really having the world, now that it is going around the world, hear what she hears inside.”