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For PaviElle French, writing music is an act of healing

Watch the full video interview “Six Question with PaviElle French,” now available for free on-demand viewing in the Concert Library.

By Kierra Lopac 

On Saturday, April 10, 2021 during a live streamed concert, PaviElle French once again stepped on the Ordway Concert Hall stage, this time empty and dripping in dark blue light. As blue faded into white, she raised her hands to the keyboard and delivered a passionate self-accompanied solo from her symphony A Requiem for Zula, previously premiered during The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Tapestry19 Festival. 

PaviElle chose to share the final movement, “Save a Place for Me,” to inspire optimism to keep moving forward in the face of the pandemic and tragic injustices. “I am blessed to be able to receive opportunities to use my voice and art to speak to both the light and the darkness we are journeying through right now, she said. 

As a whole, the symphony centers around the two things that impacted her life the most — her mother Zula and the Rondo neighborhood.I really wanted to collaborate with an orchestra, and I asked some of my colleagues and contemporaries in the industry if they knew a way I could get in contact with the SPCO,” she recalled. “Because I’m from Saint Paul … it would be wonderful … and then, boom, SPCO was doing a festival about home and themes of home.” 

Home is Rondo and my mom,” she said, “and that whole feeling of all the things that I’ve learned and all the things that made me who I am. It was kismet and I believe that.” 

People want to change [Rondo], but what it needs is to be invested in so that we can keep the beauty of that city and the culture it has to offer. That neighborhood is amazing and so many amazing people come from that place.

In 1956, the construction of Interstate 94 largely disrupted the historically Black neighborhood of Rondo, literally splitting it down the middle. It was because of this that its residents face much historical trauma which endures today, “even through the gentrification that happens within the same neighborhood and several neighborhoods of color here in the Twin Cities,” PaviElle explained. We still have a neighborhood there, contrary to popular belief. People want to change it, but what it needs is to be invested in so that we can keep the beauty of that city and the culture it has to offer. That neighborhood is amazing and so many amazing people come from that place.” 

A Requiem for Zula is a symphony in four movements starting with confronting the death of PaviElle’s mother (who also grew up in Rondo) and culminating with “Save a Place for Me.” To walk through all of that and to really understand that it was okay to grieve that’s how I got to the last movement of the whole piece. It was like ‘Yeah, it will be okay,’” PaviElle said. “I will meet my mom again, and I will meet my father again. I know that their spirits are with me every day. It was more about the acceptance of the grief that this last movement was. It’s like saying [to my parents] ‘Alright, save a place for me when I get there.’” 

After months of working alongside composers Lembit Beecher and Michi Wiancko to orchestrate the piece in 2019, PaviElle’s vision came to life. “It was so emotionally cathartic. That’s the best way I can put it because it’s like I got my healing in a public, community-based way,” she said.

I can move onto my next level now because I have, in front of everybody, admitted my truth of truths ... To have done that, it was like they signed off on it, and I felt very affirmed and confirmed by the spirit world and by the physical world that this was right.

I know she [my mother] is with me. I know you all got me,” PaviElle continued. I can move onto my next level now because I have, in front of everybody, admitted my truth of truths coming through that. That is a very intimate personal journey this 10 years that it’s been since [my parents’] deaths. It’s like this anniversary. To have done that, it was like they signed off on it, and I felt very affirmed and confirmed by the spirit world and by the physical world that this was right.”

We will be able to evolve if we are willing to do the inner work on ourselves through this difficult time. And please save a place for us artists in your hearts and minds because we will be back to doing what we love for the people, for you, for us.

Although last weekend’s performance could not be accompanied by the grandeur of an orchestra as in 2019, PaviElle’s solo piano rendition during the live broadcast was nonetheless spectacular. Being able to perform this work again takes on a new yet still deeply relevant meaning for the world at large. “We will be able to evolve if we are willing to do the inner work on ourselves through this difficult time,” said PaviElle. And please save a place for us artists in your hearts and minds because we will be back to doing what we love for the people, for you, for us.”


PaviElle French is an interdisciplinary artist who has been described to carry an aesthetic of love, light, and ancestral spirit in much of her performance work. She is an Emmy Award-winner, a Sage Cowles Award-winner, a Jerome Hill Artist Fellow, a McKnight Artist Fellow, and a McPhail Artist-in-Residence.