Find out about the inspiration behind his next ambitious project
Pianist Paul Sánchez accompanies baritone Will Liverman in the debut performance of ”Two Black Churches.”
With 10 CD releases under his belt, College of Charleston music professor Paul Sánchez is no stranger to praise. His work as a classical pianist and composer has been critically acclaimed for its innovation and technical prowess. And a 2021 collaboration with operatic baritone Will Liverman, Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers, is taking the bravos to a new level, scoring the number-one spot on Billboard’s Traditional Classical Albums chart and a Grammy nomination for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album and generating buzz from everyone from Classics Today to NPR.
The hit album features 19 songs by Black composers, including Margaret Bonds, known for her arrangements of African American spirituals, and Harry Burleigh, who introduced Dvorak to Black American music. It’s the centerpiece of the work, “Two Black Churches,” by contemporary composer Shawn Okpebholo, however, that resonates especially loud and clear in Charleston and beyond. Based in part on city poet laureate Marcus Amaker’s poem, “The Rain,” the set of two songs reflects on the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, and the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting here in 2015.
The South Dakota native and his wife, soprano Kayleen Sánchez, moved to Charleston in 2016 and welcomed a baby boy last July. Here, Sánchez speaks about collaboration, his latest project, and the power of music.
Paul Sánchez plays the piano on the Grammy-nominated album Dreams of a New Day, which highlights the works of Black composers.
Early Learner: I learned how to read music before I could read English. It was kind of a native language for me.
On the Reception of Dreams: It was a real passion project, and we were happy that it spoke to people. I think it was a matter of all the stars aligning, and that people were ready to hear it. They needed to hear it.
The Marcus Amaker Connection: My wife and I had gone to a poetry reading that Marcus was presenting. We had just moved here and wanted to get to know the artistic scene. Both of us were really struck, so when Shawn Okpebholo was looking for a second poem for his song, I suggested Marcus. It’s such a powerful poem, and Shawn’s setting does it justice.
Family Affair: My dad was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer in 2018, and they gave him a year. The situation really brought home the limits of the time we all share. It’s a total miracle he is still here. I’ve always wanted to do something that would be meaningful to him. He’s an Egyptologist, so I pitched this crazy idea: What if I wrote a piece based on Queen Nefertari, because I knew he loved the artwork in her tomb. He and his linguist partner did fresh translations of all the hieroglyphs, and I came up with a narrative structure. It’s massive, the biggest thing I’ve ever done. We’re getting ready to record it, which will be the focus of my fall sabbatical. My wife is the soprano for it. It was hard emotionally because it was facing the thing you don’t want to face, but it’s been a really good thing, and my dad, I think he likes it.
The Power of Music: I’ll never forget [my mentor] José Feghali saying, “We are dealing with the distilled essence of humanity.” And I thought it was really beautiful, that’s where it’s at, right? Say we’re listening to Bach, which might have been written in 1730. But we’re playing it right now and all the human emotions and all the things he was dealing with—we’re all dealing with that still. That’s the power of music, to unite people and build community, and that’s been evident in the reception of Dreams of a New Day. It gives me hope and motivation to keep going.
Listen to Paul Sanchez and baritone Will Liverman perform composer Shawn Okpebholo’s song in two movements ”Two Black Churches."