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Chickasaw Chamber Music Festival Bridges Gap Between Two Worlds

The works of the late Louis Ballard, celebrated Cherokee/Quapaw composer, were the highlight of the inaugural 2011 Chickasaw Chamber Music Festival, held in Ada, Oklahoma, June 3-5. Many of Ballard's compositions have been performed by major symphony orchestras, choral societies, chamber music ensembles, and ballet companies at venues such as Carnegie Hall, the Smithsonian Institution, and Lincoln Center.

Chickasaw Nation composer-in-residence Jerod "Impichchaachaaha" Tate, who serves as artistic director of the festival, believes Ballard was the perfect featured composer to launch this first native classical music festival.

"Dr. Ballard is an outstanding example of the Indian ability to express ideas through new genres," Tate says. "As a consummate musician he had a critical persona, but he also had a great love for Indians. He was a prolific composer and his presentations were entirely professional, but his subjects were entirely Indian."

A composer of international fame, Ballard, who was born in 1931 near Quapaw, Oklahoma, was also a music educator and award-winning music journalist. As the composer of "Incident at Wounded Knee," "Four Moons," and other poignant works, Ballard was honored with the First Americans in the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997, and was the first classical composer to be inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 2004. He died in 2007.

Two other dynamic American Indian composers and performers of modern classical music were featured; Yaqui classical guitarist Gabriel Ayala and Cherokee mezzo-soprano Barbara McAlister. They were joined by ETHEL, a modern, New York-based string quartet, and Voices of Change, a dynamic Chamber Music ensemble from Dallas. Tate says Voices of Change will also serve as the Ensemble in Residence at next year’s festival.

The three-day festival featured lectures and workshops led by the performers, three evening concerts, and a Sunday matinee concert. Receptions were held each day during which audience members had a chance to meet and converse with the artists.

Tate says the program was designed to showcase expressions of Indian culture through a modern classical format.

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Friday evening the vibrant sounds of ETHEL filled the historic McSwain Theater in downtown Ada. On Saturday afternoon, classical guitarist Gabriela Ayala guided students through a master guitar class and then played a thrilling evening concert. On Sunday morning, festivities began with a lecture at the McSwain Art Gallery on the life and work of Louis Ballard delivered by Tate. That afternoon, Tate was joined by McAlister and Voices of Change in a concert tribute to Ballard.

In addition to the public performances, the festival's master classes are designed to help and encourage budding young musicians by providing a rare opportunity for critique and encouragement from professional musicians who also honor and value their Indian culture.

"During his master’s class Ayala spoke to the students about his dedication to his art and to his tribal culture," Tate says. "He explained that he doesn’t drink or take drugs, he adheres to a more traditional lifestyle with strong cultural values and he works hard every day on his music. It’s an important message for students. Maria Tallchief, for example, didn’t become a member of the Ballet Russe just because she was Indian, but because she was the best at what she did. As artists, we have to set high standards for ourselves, it takes constant work and it’s not always easy."

In his own music Tate also relies on hard work and a focus on his Chickasaw upbringing. He says that from the beginning, he vowed to make his culture the center of all of his work. For instance, his composition, "Iholba" is based on a Chickasaw Garfish dance song and is sung in the Chickasaw language. In his preconcert lecture, he discussed the same dual dedication evident in Ballard’s life and work as well. He described Ballard's mastery of classical composition as a fine example of successful native cultural selection and adaptation—the ability of Indians to use elements of other cultures to create splendid expressions of their own.

"As Indians, we have been doing this for ages, expressing ourselves through mediums that originally belonged to other cultures," Tate said. "Just as a painter uses the medium of paint to express an idea through color, texture, and movement, we use the color, texture, and dynamics of classical music for expression of our own culture. Dr. Ballard was on the cutting edge of this genre and therefore we were excited to be able to present his work at our first festival."

Ballard once said, "I have found myself in a curious circumstance, in that I am literally between two worlds ... that of the American Indian and that of Western society. These two worlds, of historical necessity, have been forced to coexist yet their values and aesthetic concepts have remained almost irreconcilable. In my music I have sought to fuse these worlds for I believe that an artist can get to the heart of a culture through new forms alien to that culture."

That kind of fusion is precisely what the Chickasaw Chamber Music Festival is all about.