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Courtney Bryan brings spirit and scope to her role as Composer in Residence at Opera Philadelphia

Courtney Bryan
Arielle Pentes
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Courtney Bryan, the next Composer in Residence at Opera Philadelphia, comes to her post with a broad vision of American music — bridging classical traditions with a spectrum of sounds rooted in the Black experience, from gospel to jazz to the blues.

Bryan is a product of the unique musical ecosystem of New Orleans, where she was born. A pianist from age 5, she eventually received both classical training (with Daniel Weilbaecher) and jazz instruction (from Ellis Marsalis). At the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), where her classmates included Trombone Shorty and Christian Scott, she learned about composing for an orchestra in lessons with Roger Dickerson.

A 2020 United States Artists Fellow and 2019-20 recipient of the Samuel Barber Rome Prize in Music Composition, Bryan is also a former Hermitage Fellow and a past recipient of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts. Now a professor of music at Tulane University in New Orleans, she has degrees from Oberlin and Rutgers, as well as a doctorate from Columbia, where she studied with George Lewis. She completed her postdoctoral studies in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton.

“Courtney is a multidimensional force with inspirational depth, spirituality, and individuality,” Sarah Williams, Opera Philadelphia’s Director of New Works and Creative Producer, says in a press announcement. “She extends a bold and conscious artistic expression, carving out a distinguished and touching creativity that is desperately needed. I’m looking forward to digging in with Courtney and supporting her journey in opera. Our industry will be all the better for her exploration and voice in opera.”

Courtney Bryan
courtesy of the artist

Bryan — who recently composed a piece titled Carmen, Jazz Suite on Themes by Bizet, for Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Branford Marsalis — will bring her range of interests to the operatic forum. “Since I was in high school, I envisioned myself writing opera,” she says in a statement. “As a composer and collaborator, I love to engage with narrative, history, emotion, and spirit. There are stories and sounds that I am excited to share. During my residency, I look forward to studying the practice of writing opera and to discovering what it inspires me to create.”

The Opera Philadelphia audience may already know Bryan through Blessed, a digital commission produced last year, partly in response to the nation's racial reckoning after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Working with filmmaker Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Bryan created a meditation on a scriptural promise that the meek “shall inherit the earth.” Among the images in the multimedia piece is footage of Bryan at the piano in her home church in New Orleans.

The Philadelphia Film Society will screen Blessed and other Opera Philadelphia commissions — like Save the Boys, by former Composer in Residence Tyshawn Sorey — in a program titled Shorts: The Opera We Made on Sept. 29.

In addition to composing for classical institutions like the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, where she is serving as a Creative Partner, and the Jacksonville Symphony, where she is a former Composer in Residence, Bryan has worked extensively in improvisational settings. She has two albums in this vein, Quest For Freedom and This Little Light of Mine; a third, Sounds of Freedom, is forthcoming.

“The theme of freedom continues to show up for me,” Bryan said in a recent interview with the Tulane School of Liberal Arts Magazine. “Spirituality, and my own spirituality in particular, is also a theme.”

Later in the interview, Bryan is asked about collaboration and improvisation as societal ideals. “I’m extremely influenced by John Coltrane and his classic quartet,” she replies. “Coltrane was very much the leader of the group and it was his vision, but he left so much space for the other members to shine that it didn’t feel like there was just one leader. It wouldn’t have been the music we know without each member. To me, that’s the ideal: to be a leader that can give direction, while supporting others in a way that allows them to be their truest self.”

For more information, visit Courtney Bryan and Opera Philadelphia online.

Nate Chinen has been writing about jazz for more than 25 years.