St. Paul native PaviElle French’s first-ever symphony is a testament to dreaming big and defying boundaries. What started out as a whim to see if she could work with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) turned into a commissioned piece, complete with a supportive mentor and orchestrator.
Now French is set to debut “A Requiem for Zula” — a seven-movement homage to her late mother — this weekend at the Ordway Theatre as part of SPCO’s Tapestry19 Festival.
The multi-hyphenate artist (singer, composer and actor, just to name a few) is clear about the significance of her latest endeavor.
“To take that piece into the Ordway, into Benson Hall,” French tells the MSR, “and take that through to the orchestral realm — realms that we [as African Americans] traditionally are forgotten about and not necessarily welcome in — “it’s like I’m taking a very soulful Black aesthetic, and my community and everything that made me, on my back into this place and they’re going to play it. They’re gonna play it how I wrote it. That’s amazing.”
Sonically, she’s bridging her R&B upbringings with classical strings to create her own musical montage. “I’m playing my kind of music and not just necessarily following the rule of European classical music. This is like me meeting them halfway,” she explains.
It’s music with purpose. The 15-minute movement journeys through the seven stages of grief following her mother’s passing in 2011. But it’s not about exploiting Black girl pain — it’s for healing.
“That’s why it goes through the courses [movements],” she says. “It may not be the same order, but this is grief for everyone. And, I was really trying to paint that picture in an alchemist’s kind of way, where I’m going to heal us up. I’mma talk about it first and then I’m going to resolve, so we do this together.”
It’s also about representation and paving another path for younger generations to follow. “The kids, the community, need to see that you can bridge hip hop, you can bridge soul, you can bridge your Blackness with anything and create new art because that’s what we do,” she says.
You can bridge soul, you can bridge your Blackness with anything and create new art because that’s what we do.
She takes pride in that, as well as being given a platform to highlight her musicianship. “I’m a woman, and so people automatically assume that people are writing this music for me. And I’m like, nope, that’s me — from not just the words, but the actual sounds.”
Finding its genesis in 2017, she teamed with SPCO to begin the creative process in January 2018. It took nine months to create, from musical conception to lyrics.
“I played piano. I wrote the oboes, the violin, trumpets, the whole sections, the timpani; I wrote the drums, I wrote everything,” says French.
She worked through the music, noting that she “hears songs and melodies in color.” She also tapped into her mother’s musical influences — “My mom was a real big music head” — including Herbie Hancock, Ramsey Lewis and Barry White.
After that, everything just flowed. “It was just like my artist light was on. I think that’s the first time in my life that anything has ever happened like this,” she shares. “I’ve always been able to song write, but it’s always taken time and it’s always been, like lyric-wise, it’s always been in spurts. This just poured out.”
From there, orchestrator Michi Wiancko helped her transform her music into a full-fledged symphony. “She understood…and she was just so on with me. I said, ‘That needs to be written in the music that way.’ And she said, ‘Yes, I got you. However you give this to me is how we’re going to write it so it will sound like that.’ And it does!”
Writing her first symphony should have been nerve-wracking, but it was more of a triumph.
“[This is] me being able to walk into that unknown and show people that you can step outside of your fear — you can have a second chance at life even if you have major traumatic things that have happened to you,” she says.
She says it also made her stronger in her belief that we all can do anything we put our minds to. “I don’t care if I don’t have these credentials or if I don’t write this music on a staff or if I don’t do these classical things and have this technical talk that y’all have.
“And, I want people to have that same kind of confidence and not thinking that they have to have these things in order to get the opportunities in life that they want to get. Some stuff we really have the power to make happen, and we can step outside of the barriers that are against us and still be like, ‘Nah, I’m going to get this done.’”
But that triumph didn’t happen overnight. French has more than 20 years in the music industry, even longer in the theater, appearing in her first production at the age of five. But she hit a low point even before the back-to-back deaths of her parents in 2010 and 2011. “I was already feeling defeated about the industry. I had stopped gigging. I was just done.”
She packed her bags and left for Hawaii. “I went somewhere that I’ve never been in my life. I knew nobody down there. I just kind of had gotten a word in my head that said, ‘If you don’t go, you will die.’ And not necessarily in a physical way, but everything that I have been and that I’ve come this far to be, I will lose that if I didn’t get away from here and go heal and go heed the word.”
She returned in 2013 with a newfound passion for music and for the past six years has been on the grind — forming a band, releasing a full-length album, and receiving numerous awards (including an Emmy, First Avenue’s Best New Band in 2014, and City Pages’ Best New R&B Artist in 2015).
“I’m a believer in manifestation and all that — I came back with the intention and with the purpose and with a very strong knowing of what I was trying to achieve. But, for me to come back and then all this stuff starts happening… I really could hear my mother telling me, ‘Nah, you got to go back home. You’re not done.’”
And, she’s still moving forward. Even before its world premiere, the piece is garnering major buzz. Twin Cities PBS has followed her creative process and will feature the piece in its award-winning “MN Original” series, and MPR has committed to recording the symphony’s debut. French is also mapping out future performances.
When asked what she hopes to leave on the stage, she says it’s the “legacy of her mother’s love. I hope that everything that pours out of me shows how profound her effect was on me and on the community.”
She also hopes the piece speaks to the spirit of the old Rondo neighborhood. “I hope [the audience] understands how much I love and value where we come from and the things that have made us who we are together.”
She adds, “If I keep telling my stories, stories about the people that were in the community or the community itself, you can’t erase us.”
“A Requiem for Zula” will debut as part of SPCO’s inaugural Tapestry19 Festival. The show will run Friday, Feb. 15 and Saturday, Feb. 16 at 8 pm at Ordway Concert Hall in St. Paul. It will also run Sunday, Feb. 17, 2 pm at Benson Great Hall in Arden Hills.
Tickets range from $12-$50. Admission is free for children and students. For more information, visit thespco.org/tapestry19.