ST. PETERSBURG — The composer stood tall before the crowd of nearly 2,000, as people jumped to their feet and filled the Mahaffey Theater with applause.
Dressed in flowy black pants, a white collared shirt, gold dangling earrings and silver-toed boots, Ahmed Al Abaca looked out into the audience for The Florida Orchestra’s final show of the 2021-22 season last weekend. The composer flashed a grin, and took a bow.
It was the world premiere of the 38-year-old’s newest work titled “Ode to Liberty,” — a classical piece of music written specifically for The Florida Orchestra — and as the musicians played the final note and the fanfare began, Al Abaca exhaled a sigh of relief.
Just 20 minutes earlier Al Abaca had felt waves of anxiety.
“I had never gone on stage as my true self like that,” said Al Abaca, whose pronouns are they/them. “I was terrified, because in a place like Florida, I wasn’t sure how people would respond.”
‘Ode to Liberty’, a 10-minute symphony that moves through five acts, was written by Al Abaca during the last year. It serves as a call to action.
Inspired by Russian writer Alexander Pushkin’s poem, which shares a title, Al Abaca said the piece is a statement about the effects of oppression, and a reminder that power lies within the people to challenge government when it fails.
That a piece written by a young, Black, queer composer debuted in Florida could be taken as a political statement in itself. This year, the state passed legislation prohibiting instruction related to gender identity or sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade and potentially for older kids. It limited the way race-related issues can be taught in schools and in workplace training. Earlier this month it rejected math text for including “indoctrinating concepts,” providing little explanation about what it meant.
Although it may come as a surprise to classical music novices, The Florida Orchestra music director Michael Francis said that many great works were written in response to oppressive governance.
From the works of Tchaikovsky, who was famously gay and explored the idea of being silenced, to Beethoven, who once dedicated a symphony for Napoleon Bonaparte before denouncing the general upon learning of his tyrannical rule, Francis said much of classical music has reflected that day’s politics.
“You feel the implications of seismic political shifts within music,” said Francis. “These issues we’ve been dealing with for centuries, that are part of the human condition. I think Ahmed’s composition does that exceptionally well.”
Francis said The Florida Orchestra commissioned the piece from Al Abaca after a violinist from the orchestra heard a different piece by the composer at a music festival featuring Black artists and musicians last year. Al Abaca was given free-range with the commission to make it whatever they felt moved to create.
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“I always lean toward the political,” Al Abaca said. “I want to push the envelope, to remind people of their power and to keep the fire burning on issues.”
In each of the five movements of “Ode to Liberty,” which is 10 minutes long, Al Abaca tried to represent a different stage of human response to tyranny.
Each of the movements is titled after a line in Pushkin’s poem.
The first movement, “I Sing of Freedom’s Victorious Fire”, opens with a heroic horn and pithy, fast tempo violin. It’s grandiose — capturing excitement, like what might come after an election when a new administration takes power.
The second, “Thou Inspired Hymns Audacious”, is the “meat and potatoes” of the composition.
It’s about when “rulers make statements about freedom and patriotism, but at the same time disenfranchise us,” Al Abaca said. “The audacity of rulers who try and inspire us and at the same time, keep us down.”
The third movement, “But Woe Betide the Commonwealth”, is a reflection of the pain of the people. It’s melancholy, aiming to capture the hopelessness many feel in the wake of violence and terror.
“Like when you’re at home with your friends, just crying, because it’s overwhelming what is happening,” Al Abaca said. “It’s the realization that these people are supposed to protect us and they’re not doing it. It’s a dark moment for the people, because we don’t see any way out of it.”
But then the fourth movement, titled “The Thoughtful Singer’s Gaze”, is about the resilience of populations, Al Abaca said.
Finally, “The People Joyous, Their Freedom Vernal”, is a call to hold officials accountable.
“It’s to remind us of our strength and what we’re capable of. It’s about loving and holding each other, and making change in our society,” Al Abaca said.
At the end of last Saturday’s performance, as the audience roared in cheers, Al Abaca said they were filled with hope. Even though the pain in this world feels inescapable, they said, there are those who will fight for change; who embrace one another with open arms, strive to make the world a safer place for all, and most importantly, refuse to give up.
The Florida Orchestra will return in October. To keep up with Ahmed Al Abaca, visit their website at: https://www.ahmedalabaca.com/