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Rising Black composer Kevin Day premieres work with Sheffield Chamber Players

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Rising Black composer Kevin Day premieres work with Sheffield Chamber Players
Composer Kevin Day PHOTO: Sara Bill and Karen Cubides Agency

This month, composer Kevin Day headlines the Sheffield Chamber Players’ “A Brand New Day” program, a selection of chamber works centered on the world premiere of Day’s “String Quartet No. 5.” This moving number was commissioned by the Sheffield Chamber Players and will premiere on Jan. 27 at Historic New England’s Lyman Estate in Waltham. 

Day’s piece is part of a larger initiative by the Sheffield Chamber Players to premiere newly commissioned works by five diverse composers through 2027. Featuring prominent and rising composers, the project allows Sheffield Chamber Players to contribute to the history and contemporary landscape of chamber music while bringing innovative works to Boston audiences.

Sheffield violinist Sasha Callahan says it was a natural fit to commission works from composers of color who aren’t highlighted often in the popular chamber music canon. “We have been performing music by women and people of color since the inception of the group,” says Callahan. “That’s been important to us from the perspective of telling as many stories as possible and trying to have as complete a range of human expression as we can.”

Callahan and Sheffield cellist Leo Eguchi first met Day during a workshop at the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music in California. They were instantly drawn to his work.

“We were really impressed with his voice,” says Callahan. “He’s a very extraordinary person and I think this really comes across in his music as well.” During the composition process, Day has sent bits of music to the Sheffield Chamber Players, who play the music, sit with it and then respond with questions. Day and the quartet will come together for the Jan. 27 concert to realize the piece in its entirety.

Day’s musical star is rising rapidly. The Boston Symphony Orchestra has played his composition “Ignition” twice, and he’s been commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Brass Quintet for a piece. Day says he’s the busiest he’s ever been, working on a horn concerto, chamber pieces, wind band pieces, and in the longer term, an opera that will serve as his doctoral dissertation.

In the Lyman Estate concert program, “String Quartet No. 5” will join works by female artist Germaine Tailleferre and famed composer Robert Schumann. Tailleferre’s piece was written in 1919, just after the Spanish flu pandemic, and will juxtapose that moment of cultural anxiety with our own.

Day says working during the COVID-19 pandemic has affected his own practice as well.

“I took some time to try to go slower, try to think about things more intently,” Day says. This reflection is illustrated in “String Quartet No. 5,” which features two movements — one more meditative and interior and the other more spirited. “Basically, they represent two parts of myself,” says Day. “The introspective, introverted parts of myself that I’m exploring and then also my love for rhythm, for motion, for energy.”

Day was raised by parents in the music industry. His father was a hip-hop and R&B producer and his mother a gospel singer. He says those genres are making their way into his work more and more as his compositional voice develops.

String Quartet No. 5” is an ideal musical landscape for the Sheffield Chamber Players to explore. The Players perform in intimate settings, oftentimes in private homes in salon-style concerts reminiscent of how Tchaikovsky or Beethoven might have premiered early works. This close-range style of performance allows the group to take performative risks and explore techniques that might get lost in a large concert hall. For an introspective piece like “String Quartet No. 5,” the setting amplifies the internal emotions expressed.

The “A Brand New Day” program will also be performed live at the Chase Young Gallery in Boston on Feb. 13 and is likely to stream online from private homes in the coming months as well. Music lovers are encouraged to keep an eye on the Sheffield Chamber Players’ website for the most up-to-date details about the premiere.

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Callahan hopes this program will spark joy in listeners. “I do believe that there is some kind of magic that happens between musician and audience,” she says. “My biggest hope is that people come away nourished, and that this music is thought-provoking and, hopefully, a little bit healing.”