Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts and UNCSA to host first regional presentation of the Black Sacred Music Symposium

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 8, 2024

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WINSTON-SALEM — The Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) are hosting the first regional gathering for the celebrated Black Sacred Music Symposium Feb. 15-18 on the UNCSA campus. Founded in 1991 by Dr. Ollie Watts Davis, the Black Sacred Music Symposium is a four-day conference dedicated to the study and performance of Black sacred music traditions, culminating in a large-scale community choral performance to celebrate the music, methods and message behind the impactful genre.

The concert, which is open to the public in addition to symposium attendees, will take place on Sunday, Feb. 18, at 4 p.m. in the Gerald Freedman Theatre of Performance Place at UNCSA (1533 S. Main St.); reception to follow. It will feature works performed by the symposium community choir and band as well as soloists and featured performances from the University of Illinois Black Chorus, the Winston-Salem State University Singing Rams, a UNCSA string quartet, and liturgical dance performed by UNCSA students. To learn more, register for the symposium or purchase tickets to the concert, go to

Black Sacred Music Symposium XVII marks the first time that the symposium will be held away from its home at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where it was founded.

Dr. Ollie Watts Davis, associate dean for academic programs in the College of Fine and Applied Arts and Suzanne and William Allen Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has directed the symposium biennially for 32 years. The symposium has become a major event at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, uniting the community and the university in a joyful experience that celebrates the artistry and rich tradition of Black sacred music.

“I am excited to bring the Black Sacred Music Symposium to Winston-Salem,” said Dr. Davis. “I have long wanted to expand this time-tested model outside of Urbana-Champaign, and the Kenan Institute for the Arts and UNCSA are the perfect partners to make that happen.”

The XVII Symposium at UNCSA is an opportunity for everyone and anyone with a passion for and interest in choral music, specifically Black sacred music, in the greater Winston-Salem community to learn about and perform the music from visiting instructors, Grammy-nominated artists and scholars.

“UNCSA is honored to be the first regional location for the celebrated Black Sacred Music Symposium,” said Brian Cole, chancellor of UNCSA. “It will offer a unique opportunity for our entire UNCSA community — faculty, staff and students in all of our arts schools — to expand outside their traditional disciplines and come together to appreciate, learn and experience the joy and artistry of this powerful music.

UNCSA is looking forward to forging deeper connections among our campus community and the greater Winston-Salem community at large around this partnership. We are grateful to Dr. Ollie Watts and to the Kenan Institute for the Arts for their support and vision in making this event a reality.”

“For over 30 years, the Kenan Institute for the Arts has served as a catalyst for creativity within UNCSA and beyond,” said Kevin Bitterman, executive director of the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts. “This gathering builds upon our history of supporting community connections and amplifies the role that music and artmaking can play to support community well-being and belonging.”

“Each symposium has a theme around which the music is centered,” Dr. Watts continued. “This year, the theme is ‘Haven.’ Black sacred music has played a role throughout its history as a haven in times of difficulty and hardship. Today, as our communities, nation and indeed the whole world are facing turbulent times, I hope that we can all come together and experience a sense of peace and shelter, a haven from the storm as we embrace this music.

“I can’t emphasize enough what an uplifting experience the final concert is.”

Tickets to the concert are $15; the cost to attend the four-day symposium is $50. For full details about the symposium and concert and to register, including group sales, visit

Additional presenting partners for the Black Sacred Music Symposium XVII include Wake Forest University School of Divinity; Winston-Salem State University Department of Music; Galilee Missionary Baptist Church; Union Baptist Church; Triad Cultural Arts, Inc.; and the City of Winston-Salem Human Relations/Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department.

In August 2023, as a precursor event, the Kenan Institute for the Arts and the UNCSA School of Music presented Dr. Davis and her collaborative pianist Dr. Casey Robards in a performance at UNCSA entitled “Toward Justice: Art Song as Lens, Language, Vision and Hope” along with workshops and master classes on the topic of Black Art Song and Performance. More than 400 people attended one or more of these activities.

Black Sacred Music Symposium XVII “Haven” Conference

Participants in the Black Sacred Music Symposium will have the opportunity to expand their knowledge and performance of the music as well as reach a deeper understanding of its message. Attendees learn from distinguished guest artists and perform with them in concert. Seminar topics range from the history and development of African American sacred music traditions, including congregational singing, folk and concert spirituals, metered and improvised hymns, anthems, and traditional and contemporary gospel expressions to choral conducting and vocal and instrumental techniques.

Distinguished artists who honor the Black Sacred Music traditions with achievements in the arts, education, ministry and law make up the teaching faculty. For the 2024 symposium, guest artists include Dr. DavisBerris BoltonRev. Dr. K. Edward CopelandKimberly Fullerton-SmithDr. Alonza Lawrence and L’Tanya Moore-Copeland.

For a complete symposium schedule including plenary sessions, rehearsals and more, go to