Of Freedom We Sing: The First Juneteenth Concert in the Secret Garden Honors the New Federal Holiday

On June 17, the day after Congress established Juneteenth as a federal holiday and President Biden signed it into law, Classical Movements held their first Juneteenth Celebration Concert

Left to right: Mayor Justin Wilson, CAAPA Executive Director Terri Allen, dancer Shawna Williams, pianist Lester Green, soprano Shana Oshiro, narrator Pamela Simonson, bass-baritone Jarrod Lee with Classical Movements President Neeta Helms. (Photo Classical Movements)

Alexandria, VA – On June 17, the day after Congress established Juneteenth as a federal holiday and President Biden signed it into law, Classical Movements held their first Juneteenth Celebration Concert in the Secret Garden venue at the Christ Church Rectory on Princess Street in Old Town. The Coalition for African Americans in the Performing Arts (CAAPA) presented an eloquent, moving program of narration, dance, piano, and song to mark the historic occasion commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

Despite COVID, Classical Movements has been bringing live music to Alexandria for over a year, hosting their initial pandemic performance in 2020 at the same time as the first Juneteenth Celebration last month. This evening was the 68th concert held in the serene outdoor setting created by the backyard brick and boxwood garden of the historic Christ Church Rectory.

The property once belonged to the Boothe family, including state senator Armistead Boothe, who is best remembered for his consistent fight to integrate Virginia’s public schools, thus adding to the location’s ties to the struggle for emancipation. It is a fitting stage for the CAAPA transformative tribute to mark the occasion.

CAAPA Executive Director Terri Allen was in attendance as Pamela Simonson rendered a poignant narration of Teri Allen’s script to Shawna Williams’ plaintive interpretive dance, which evoked the anguish of slavery and the epiphany of deliverance from bondage to the metaphorical free-flowing river of liberation.

The commanding baritone of Jarrod Lee delivering Margaret Bonds’s/Langston Hughes’s Three Dream Portraits had nary a dry eye in the garden. Lester Green on the piano had even the neighbors and the nightingales rapt in awe. The evening ended far too soon with a unanimous standing ovation and an audience joining in a joyous chorus of the spiritual classic When the Saints Go Marching In.

Classical Movements founder and president Neeta Helms welcomes Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson and his wife Alex Batt-Crawford to the first Juneteenth Celebration concert. (Photo by Scott MacConomy)

A special guest attending the sold-out Juneteenth Celebration Concert was Alexandria’s Mayor Justin Wilson, with his wife, Alex Crawford-Batt. Voice of America was also on-site, filming the two memorable Juneteenth performances. The evening’s ever-elegant hostess, Neeta Helms, founder and president for the last 29 years of the Classical Movements Company, had by then welcomed more than 2,400 audience guests and 180 artists and musicians since last year, creating moonlight magic representing centuries of classical performance genre and various musical styles. No easy feat during COVD-19 amid state-wide attendance restrictions and social-distancing protocols that shut down most live entertainment venues for over 17 months.

Neeta explained how fortuitous it was that Classical Movements was based in the Christ Church Rectory at 711 Princess Street, making the office garden setting all the more accessible for concerts: “All of us in the company have reveled in creating a classy and safe concert series. I enjoy programming and curating more than anything else but Johan (Johan vanZyl, Neeta’s husband) and I have become the stage crew, the marketing team, social media managers, concert promoters, setting and programs designers, ticket takers and makers, cleaning and maintenance crew, even the gardeners! I adore gardens, but I never expected to be relocating trees and trimming boxwoods to maintain peaceful harmony with the neighbors or to better socially distance choral performers.”

Narrator Pamela Simonson of the Coalition for African Americans in the Performing Arts positively glowed in the early-evening enchantment of the Secret Garden concert venue. (Photo by Kelly MacConomy)

With not even a score of concerts remaining until the summer series finale at the end of August, Neeta is hugely grateful for the support of the community, sponsors, and concert goers who have made the past 14 months of secret garden serenades a resounding success. The motto of Classical Movements is “moving the music, changing the world.”

Since 1992, Neeta, along with Johan and the support of the amazing Secret Garden team of Alessandra D’Ovidio, Sara Shea Casar, Jayci Thomas, and Adam Jackson, has taken music traveling across the U.S. and to 145 countries over six continents, in addition to virtual music education and the COVID concert series. Per the Washington Post, “Classical Movements moves the music around the world.”

Soprano and former Miss Maryland Shana Oshiro sings “This River” by Uzee Brown, Jr. in a timely celebration of the first official Juneteenth federal holiday. (Photo by Kelly MacConomy)

The 2021 musical series in the Secret Garden is aptly named “Sounds of Hope and Harmony.” Classical Movements has prevailed over COVID and cicadas, funding and feuding neighborhood challenges. The City granted Classical Movements a special use permit to continue offering live music to the community in a time of great strain financially, spiritually, politically, and creatively.

In his review of the secret garden concerts in June 2020, Washington Post classical music critic Michael Andor Brodeur wrote, “Going to my first concert of the pandemic felt like preparing for battle. Then I got there.” Brodeur was soon appeased with protocol assurances such as temperatures taken, meticulously enforced mask wearing, and socially distanced, arranged, and assigned seating.

Life and art in the time of COVID have often felt as if every venture beyond quarantined doors was an embattled threat to life and liberty. As we venture into a new world returning to personal freedoms after a year of constraint, it’s appropriate that Juneteenth is officially recognized as a national federal holiday.

Shawna Williams passionately performs an interpretive dance during the Juneteenth Celebration concert at the Christ Church Rectory in Old Town. (Photo by Kelly MacConomy)

CAAPA’s brand is “Bringing Color to the Classics.” Equally fitting is “Bringing Soul to the Sounds of Hope and Harmony.” Kudos to Classical Movements and an encore standing ovation to CAAPA for a timely celebration in jubilation of the abolishment of enslavement and involuntary servitude. Let freedom sing!

Information about CAAPA and performances can be found at 4caapa.org.

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