A Black Harpist Makes Classical Music for the Moment - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Charles Overton is using an unlikely instrument to make a big impact.
SourceJonas Tarm

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because a Black male harpist is exceedingly rare.

By Jed Gottlieb

  • Charles Overton is a rising star on the Boston music scene thanks in part to his new, original composition in response to killing of George Floyd.
  • The versatile 26-year-old wants to be both the Yo-Yo Ma and Herbie Hancock of the harp.

Harpist Charles Overton had started to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic curtailing his work when Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd. With the U.S. hit by the relentless scourges of COVID-19 and violence against African Americans, Overton felt distant from the bright, complex music he produced with his harp. 

“I just didn’t have it in myself to be making music at that time,” he says. “I thought, ‘What does the world need from me right now in terms of my music and my art?’ I didn’t think it needed anything.”

Then, an old friend, Boston Symphony Orchestra associate principal horn Richard Sebring, reached out to Overton with a scrap of music Sebring had composed following Floyd’s death. The heartfelt, simple melody helped bring Overton, who had studied with Sebring at Berklee College of Music, back to his instrument. The two began a collaboration that blossomed into a piece Overton titled “Listen, to the Cry of Your Fellow Man.” In October, the contemplative harp and horn duet became part of the Boston Symphony’s “Encore BSO Recitals,” a weekly online series featuring new performances.

“It essentially turned into a conversation between us,” Sebring says. “It brings tears to my eyes to hear [Overton] play. It’s so exquisite. It’s like a fine piece of jewelry with such detail. He has a beautiful touch and warm heart in his playing.” 

The forceful but nuanced rise and fall of “Listen” shows off the skills of a 26-year-old already in complete control of his craft. Overton’s journey began in fifth grade in Richmond, Virginia, when his music teacher advised him to switch from the violin to the harp. “I had had a trial lesson and I was just floored because you have to try very hard to make the harp sound bad,” Overton says. “[At this point] I was really, really bad at the violin and, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard really, really bad violin playing, but it’s something that’s just so terrible.” 

The new instrument was a springboard to the American Youth Harp Ensemble, undergraduate studies at Berklee and recent performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Part of the joy of this is trying to do something that not a whole lot of other folks have done.

Charles Overton

Overton stands out onstage. Only 1.8 percent of musicians in American orchestras are Black, and only 6 percent of harpists are men. Plus, he’s a harpist who not only regularly performs classical masterpieces but also excels in jazz, from gentle to almost avant garde.  

As a Black man, Overton has spent time thinking about how he fits into the world of classical music, but, he says, it hasn’t dominated his thoughts. “That’s a testament to the kind of privileged upbringing I had thanks to the parents in my life, the mentors in my life,” he says, referring to his pharmaceutical sales rep mom and his dad, who was general manager of an exchange at Marine Corps Base Quantico. “I think it was once I got to college and I was on my own that I really started to notice how maybe my race factored into what I was doing.”

Charles+Overton+Group

Source Jonas Tarm

During Overton’s sophomore year at Berklee, he started playing with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, and for the first time he didn’t feel confident in a classical music setting. “I couldn’t help but think about the way I was being perceived,” he says. “I don’t think I had reason to feel racism from the people around me, but I was just very conscious that I was a Black male harpist at Berklee playing in this fantastic ensemble.” 

Overton wondered if people doubted his abilities because of his race, gender or college — Berklee, a legendary institution that has educated icons from Quincy Jones to Branford Marsalis to St. Vincent, doesn’t have a formidable classical music reputation. But Overton never wanted to play solely classical; he spent nearly as much time during his formative years with jazz and various folk traditions. At Berklee, while still studying classical music, Overton became the first harpist to be accepted to the college’s prestigious Global Jazz Institute. In 2017, a year after he graduated, Overton released his debut LP, Convergence, with his jazz quartet, the Charles Overton Group. Between gigs playing post-bop, he managed to catch the ears of both BSO conductor Andris Nelsons and Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart.

Overton’s Boston Pops debut came in spring 2017 — as a last-minute substitute and without any preparation. “I have seldom worked with such an extraordinary player,” Lockhart says. “He was perfectly prepared, watched, listened, everything inexperienced players don’t always do.… I subsequently found out that I had only seen the tip of the iceberg.”

Each passing year has brought new milestones for Overton: work with the New York Philharmonic, taking the stage at the International Harp Festival in Ancenis, France, sets full of improvisation (including a swinging instrumental take on the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” live from the Boston Public Library).

Since “Listen,” Overton and Sebring have collaborated on more pieces — some classical, some jazz, many of them Overton originals. He has grown into his new role as a teacher at Boston Conservatory and has written a commission for New York–based classical/avant-punk violin duo String Noise as part of Carnegie Hill Concerts’ Midday Music Festival. Next up: working with contemporary classical giant Gabriela Lena Frank’s Creative Academy of Music and contributing to an instrumental practicum course alongside Houston Symphony principal harpist Megan Conley.

When asked to dream big, Overton struggles to lay out concrete goals because, well, nobody else has ever tried to be both the Yo-Yo Ma and Herbie Hancock of the harp. “Part of the joy of this is trying to do something that not a whole lot of other folks have done,” he says. “The dream is to just play the music that I believe in for as wide an audience as possible.”

As dark as 2020 has been, it has at least illuminated something for Overton: He doesn’t have to choose just one form of musical expression to get his point across.

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