Stephen Tucker, UCI
“I hope this showcase generates a little more respect for the contributions of these composers to their field,” says Stephen Tucker, UCI associate professor of music and conductor of the UCI Symphony Orchestra. Steve Zylius / UCI

The famed Czech composer Antonín Dvořák believed that the African American tradition was central to all American compositions, calling it “all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.” On Feb. 3, Stephen Tucker, UCI associate professor of music and conductor of the UCI Symphony Orchestra, will launch Black History Month with a concert showcasing some of America’s most celebrated African American composers, highlighting their influence on the world of concert hall music.

The 7 p.m. event will conclude the three-day College Orchestra Directors Association Conference, hosted by UCI, which is expected to draw nearly 100 college conductors from around the world.

To be held at Orange County’s Soka University, the concert will feature two world premieres: a composition by Carolyn Yarnell called “It’s Still Big, Just Like You Remember!” and an aria by Richard Thompson, “We Wear the Mask,” sung by UCI student Marlaina Owens. The UCI Symphony Orchestra will also play compositions by Adolphus Hailstork, four-time Grammy winner Billy Childs, George Walker and Duke Ellington.

Tucker, who wrote his dissertation on Ellington and considers several of these composers “the center of [his] academic life,” is eager to bring their work to wider audiences.

“I’ve never had the opportunity to do a black history concert before, so the chance to play music by African American composers for a captive audience of peers is wonderful,” Tucker says. “I want everyone to leave the concert with this arsenal of pieces in their minds, so they can do their own research and find out who else is out there – because there are so many African American composers in jazz and classical, and they influence everything.”

Although Tucker was raised in Jamaica, he noticed when he came to America as a young man that the contributions of African American musicians were “everywhere” and “so powerful,” although sometimes overlooked in the classical genre.

“These influences are not just felt in pop music; there are benefits to be gained from observing, embracing and adopting the African American tradition in concert hall music,” he says. “I hope this showcase generates a little more respect for the contributions of these composers to their field and possibly inspires more African American musicians to pursue their craft.”

The three-day CODA Conference begins on Thursday, Feb. 1, and ends with Tucker’s “Celebration of African American Composers” on Saturday, Feb. 3. Attendees will tour Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on the first day and enjoy a concert by the L.A. Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, before returning to Orange County for a series of panels, presentations and performances over the next two days.

On Friday night, the Pacific Symphony, under Carl St.Clair, will present a classical program featuring Johannes Brahms and Sergei Prokofiev at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Hall. Among the free events open to the public at UCI are two appearances by visiting orchestras at Winifred Smith Hall and a keynote address by Nina Bernstein Simmons, daughter of famed composer Leonard Bernstein.

“This is Leonard Bernstein’s centenary year, so the fact that CODA and UCI could get someone like his daughter to come to campus and speak about this treasure of American music is a can’t-miss opportunity,” Tucker says. “It’s not often that so many great conductors are all together in one place, sharing and celebrating what we do. To have all these influential figures at UCI – and to have our capstone concert focusing on Black History Month – is really something special.”