Monday, November 24, 2014
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Remembering Rondo with music

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The Rondo neighborhood is remembered as a close-knit, vibrant, primarily African-American community. This is a photo of Credjafawn Co-op store in 1950, which was located in Rondo. The Credjafawns were one of several prominent black social clubs that served the community. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)
It's been more than 45 years since the predominantly black St. Paul neighborhood of Rondo was bulldozed to make way for Interstate 94. Over the past two decades the spirit of the neighborhood has been kept alive through books, documentaries, plays and the annual Rondo Days celebration. This weekend the story of Rondo will be told through music, with the premiere of composer Stephen Newby's "Rondo Oratorio."

St. Paul, Minn. — Seattle composer and Detroit native Stephen Newby spent 15 months composing a work that would capture the spirit of the people who lived in St. Paul's long-gone Rondo neighborhood. He took inspiration from visits with former residents, and the oral histories compiled in the book, "Voices of Rondo."

"The Rondo Oratorio" is a multi-movement work for large chorus, chamber orchestra, rhythm section, soloists and narrators. The project is a collaboration between the American Composers Forum and the Walker-West Music Academy in St. Paul. Newby was selected from a pool of applicants to write the work.

"I hope that this music serves a purpose, to bring healing and to get people excited about their history, and to celebrate who they are today," Newby says.

The heyday of the Rondo neighborhood was the 1920s through the 1950s. It's remembered as a close-knit, vibrant, primarily African-American community. It had churches, schools, stores and restaurants.

When the bulldozers came to make way for the freeway, former St. Paul Police Chief William Finney was around 10 years old.

"I watched my house and the backyard I played in being torn down," Finney recalls. "I saw the whole neighborhood ripped up, and it was like it never existed. The oratorio is an encapsulation of all those wonderful events, people and places that existed prior to 1959."

William Finney's father, like many residents of Rondo, worked for the railroad. He was a waiter on the Northern Pacific. Others worked for the packinghouse in South St. Paul. These were tough jobs, but Finney says people were able to make good livings.

In writing "The Rondo Oratorio," composer Stephen Newby wanted to help younger generations of African-Americans understand what their forebears went through to provide for their families.

In one of the movements, "Regular Routine," Newby uses rap and hip-hop to tell the story of people like Finney's father.

"I wanted to convey the story to young people who don't have to deal with that today," Newby explains.

Former residents of Rondo remember the neighborhood as one that was culturally rich with art, literature, and, most of all, music. It was also strongly rooted in the church. The gospel sound is one of the many musical styles Newby uses in "The Rondo Oratorio."

Twin Cities composer and educator Keith McCutchen coached a small choir that will be a part of this weekend's premiere. He says it's not an easy piece of music.

"The last movement is Stravinsky meets gospel," he says. "I think that's an accurate depiction of what's happening in the music. Newby's a wonderful composer, and he's quite rooted in the gospel tradition as well."

Retired school superintendent Mary K. Boyd grew up in Rondo. She says Newby has captured the rhythm and feeling of the bygone neighborhood. She says she hopes "The Rondo Oratorio" work will help her descendents understand where they came from.

"I want my grandson to know that he comes from such a rich legacy," she says. "He is connected through this history. And I want to make sure that he's grounded in the understanding of what this was all about and he's a part of it."

Boyd's story of growing up in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood was one of many that inspired Stephen Newby in the composition of "The Rondo Oratorio."

The work for soloists, chorus and orchestra will be premiered Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon at Concordia University in St. Paul.

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