August Wilson Symphony Making Its World Premiere In Pittsburgh

Jan 16, 2018

Renowned composer Kathryn Bostic first worked with Pittsburgh-born playwright August Wilson in 2003, scoring the Broadway production of “Gem of the Ocean.”

“Being a part of that process and being in rehearsals and hearing his words, the cadence in his words and his writing is to me are very musical and symphonic,” said Bostic, who lives and works in Los Angeles. “That’s when I began to first get this idea to try to create a symphonic piece.”

Now, years after those seeds were planted, The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is performing the world-premiere of the August Wilson Symphony at Heinz Hall Saturday, Jan. 20.

Bostic said she’s always loved Wilson’s plays, including "The Pittsburgh Cycle," his well-known series of 10 plays set in the Hill District neighborhood, which explore the African American experience throughout the 20th Century.

The August Wilson Symphony is inspired by those works and by the playwright himself.

“I wanted to give his words a broad canvas, a broad orchestral and symphonic canvas to sonically also tell what I feel is a musical story about him,” said Bostic.

The first movement, “The Great Migration," deals with the migration of African Americans from the rural south to urban cities. It is largely inspired by Wilson’s Play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” which Bostic also worked on.

The second movement, “The Hill Illumined,” explores what Bostic describes as the mystical element to Wilson’s work.

“Wiley Avenue” is the third movement of the symphony, and remembers the historic street in the Hill District.

“It’s also an epicenter for the jazz community. For many, many years it was the place to go to hear some of the greatest musicians and artists in the world actually,” said Bostic, “so I wanted to pay tribute to that.”

The fourth movement, “The Oracle of Aunt Esther,” is all about the matriarchal character from Wilson’s plays.

“Exalted Roads of Truth and Triumph” is the final movement, which Bostic called “the convergence of all the paths and characters in his play, and how they all have come together for this moment of great embrace of his voice, and vision, as a playwright a poet and someone who had an unwavering commitment to his own voice, and his own truth and talent.”

Ahead of each movement, text from his plays will be narrated by Tony Award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad. Rashad performed in and directed several of Wilson’s plays.

Recognizable musical elements in The August Wilson Symphony include Americana, blues and Delta guitar, and jazz.