Hannibal Lokumbe can’t occupy a space for long before doing his level best to get someone around him to open up.
Sitting with a reporter at Parc restaurant recently, the composer turned to the waitress twisting cracked pepper over his omelet and asked her, apropos of nothing, what was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen in her life.
“My little brother. Him being born,” she said.
A few minutes earlier, he was being introduced to soprano Benita Valente, who happened to be at a nearby table.
“What’s the first song you ever heard?” he asked her. Suddenly, she was standing in Parc at lunchtime, singing a lullaby her Swiss mother had sung to her, reaching out and touching Hannibal’s cheeks — the cheeks of someone who had been a stranger seconds earlier.
Joyful, charming, absolutely open and prone to emotional intimacy, Hannibal has a gift for drawing those same characteristics out of just about anyone he meets, and he’s met a lot of Philadelphians in his three years as composer-in-residence for the Philadelphia Orchestra.
His time here has produced Healing Tones, a kind of hymn to the city to be premiered by the orchestra, vocal soloists, and two choirs led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin at three concerts starting Thursday.
The work marks the end of the Texan’s composer-in-residence term.
“It came to me right after I finished One Land, One River, One People,” premiered by the orchestra in 2015. This new piece worked its way into existence through his “walks in the forest and my being still and quiet. The ancestors came and gave me instructions to do as much healing as possible, that the people are in desperate need of healing.”
Who could argue? Hannibal’s presence here is another in a series of acknowledgments by the orchestra of the world outside the cloistered walls of the Kimmel Center, Carnegie Hall, and other concert venues. His history of visiting the city predates this Philadelphia Orchestra residency, but as part of his process for writing Healing Tones, he has gathered inspiration in the last few years in prisons, shelters, schools, and churches.
The social strife and violence playing out in the larger atmosphere has found its way into Hannibal’s score, which he divides up into “Veils.”
“Pittsburgh hit me really hard, like Charleston,” he said, "and as I’m writing Veil Two, “The Tones of War,” it was so clear that there are opposing forces inside of me, inside of us as humans, the ones who say destruction is the way, revenge is the way, and the one that says forgiveness is the way.”
And so Hannibal worked Pittsburgh into the piece. It will include the sounding of the shofar by Audrey Glickman, who was leading services in the synagogue shared by the Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha, New Light, and Dor Hadash congregations on the morning of Oct. 27 when a gunman entered the temple and murdered 11 worshippers.
“It’s not a mournful thing, but more of a coming-together kind of thing,” Glickman says of the symbolism behind the shofar sound. “The first thing I thought of after the shooting was, ‘We have to stand up and speak against this, we have to make our voices heard.’ This is, in fact, a way for spreading the word that we have to pay attention to this, and it’s a physical representation of it.”
Glickman says that she is honored to be appearing on behalf of her congregation and that she sees her participation as a step in her own healing. She also says she hopes she can meet the high standards of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
“The shofar is not the kind of instrument you can always hit on a downbeat. I’m practicing like a maniac.”
Hannibal has constructed a piece that creates a dialogue between the Everlasting (a mezzo-soprano), the Eternal Mother (soprano), and the Shaman (tenor). The chorus takes the role of the ancestors, and the orchestra and conductor are the “primordial force.”
“None of us can exude spirituality and charm the way Hannibal does,” says Philadelphia Orchestra vice president of artistic planning Jeremy Rothman. “His message, for better or worse, is something we very much need.”
That Hannibal has become so closely aligned with this orchestra — any orchestra — strikes the composer/trumpeter as a significant development. In a recent meeting with orchestra staff, Hannibal reported, he said that “This orchestra and most other orchestras were seen by people of color the same way we see the Confederate monuments.”
He recalled being 5 years old and accompanying his father to the courthouse in Bastrop, Texas, where he started looking at the sculptures outside. His grandfather addressed him in a way he never had before, Hannibal recalled.
“He scared me. He told me, ‘Get away from that thing, it’s evil. That’s for white people. Don’t you ever go near that.’ That’s how most people of color see orchestras, for the white people, and since our work here began, that’s no longer the case because somebody had courage. Somebody believed in me, and they wanted to do something about it."
Hannibal’s presence at the orchestra these last few years has created a sense that a door to the orchestra has opened, says J. Donald Dumpson, minister of music and the arts at Arch Street Presbyterian Church and artistic director of the Philadelphia Heritage Chorale, which joins the Morgan State University Choir in Healing Tones.
“I think without question the sense of inclusion in the programming, the sense of generosity that comes from Yannick, him just being approachable, has changed the general vibe of the orchestra itself and how our community sees the orchestra,” said Dumpson.
Yumi Kendall, a cellist who has worked with Hannibal as part of a program in which a string quartet from the orchestra workshops new pieces by young composers, says Hannibal “has an intense focus that, when he looks in my eyes, it’s like he’s seeing my innermost being. That’s what he’s about — getting to the core of the experience, hearing about a person and his or her heritage or culture. It’s just a vulnerability that he opens up.”
Hannibal himself can seem vulnerable.
In a note sent to this reporter just after the recent massacre in New Zealand, Hannibal wrote:
There is a thread of hatred woven so tightly into the garment called humanity.
It wove its way through the shroud called Wounded Knee, Nanking, Mother Emanuel AME, The Tree of Life Synagogue, The Mosques of Al Noor and Linwood. Where next its thread to weave?
Healing Tones is a thread of love, joined to the eternal thread of love which will continue to weave the garment of peace for the world to wear when it grows too weary from the coldness which life can sometimes be.
Anger is surely one response to mass shootings, hate, division, injustice, and all the other ills of the world eating at the conscience of millions daily. “There is a certain kind of comfort that comes with being vengeful. It’s so easy,” says Hannibal. “But it’s much like drug addiction. It’s such a waste. If anger would serve a purpose other than what it always serves, and that’s destruction, I would be interested in it.”
The composer answers instead with creation.
“Every time human destruction makes its move, it needs to be countered so that people will be reminded, especially the children, that this is a very precious thing we have inherited called life.”
Performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra in a program with the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 28, and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 29 and 30, at Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets.