The Colour of Music, the inaugural “Black Classical Musicians Festival,” establishes with its very name its racial context. This is good in so far as it draws attention to the stubborn disparities we continue to see in the field of classical music-making.
It is also good because it presents a stage full of role models — talented players and singers and conductors, many still in their 20s and 30s — who might inspire today’s students, especially young black musicians, to pursue a similar career, and who might also lure more black patrons to the concert halls of Charleston.
The widely held perception that classical music is for stodgy old white people interested in the regurgitation of pieces that are best suited for a museum is severely challenged when Memminger Auditorium stage fills with black musicians playing underappreciated 20th and 21st century works by black composers, and interpreting a famous symphony whose composer, Antonin Dvorak, was inspired by black and Native American folk music.
So it is important to applaud the organizers of the Colour of Music Festival, especially when they deliver a rewarding concert experience.
But there is a potential risk that audiences will think they are being asked to grant special dispensation, to like what they hear because the musicians are black, something the festival itself, with its emphasis on race, seems to invite.
But racial ruminations aside, this critic had plenty to admire in the “Ode to Black Composers” Program, presented Saturday night.
The concert began with a piece by “the father of black classical music,” Joseph Boulogne, otherwise known as Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. It was Boulogne’s music, produced in the latter part of the 18th century, and his relatively unknown status today, that inspired Lee Pringle to organize this ambitious event.
The Symphony in D Major, Op. 11, No. 2, was a pleasant example of the Classical style, played adequately, if not with terrific drive and precision, by the orchestra. The acoustics of Memminger Auditorium were no help; with no shell behind the players, the sound tended to dissipate in the open space — except for the brass, which were aided by natural reverb and echo.
Next came a lush, emotion-laden version of William Grant Still’s “Mother and Child” for string orchestra, written in 1943. Though it lost some momentum in places, conductor Marlon Daniel did extrude from the players some long, legato lines and lovely filaments of shimmering strings. The short piece, which carries hints of Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings as well as languid folk tunes, and looks back toward Romanticism rather than forward to the avant garde or jazz, provides ample evidence of Still’s talents.
For me, the highlight of the concert was a piece by a living composer, Trevor Weston, who taught composition at the College of Charleston for nine years until joining the music department at Drew University in 2009. Weston’s “The People Could Fly,” was based on an African-American folktale, narrated with simplicity and directness by Minerva King. The work featured violin soloist Josh Henderson, who premiered it in 2004.
The story tells of a teenage mother working in the cotton fields with her baby strapped to her back. Together they are whipped mercilessly by the overseer when the baby begins to cry inconsolably. But the girl is told magic words by a sympathetic slave who has retained his African culture and identity, and she soon is flapping her arms and flying away, back to Africa. Before long, others are flying off, too.
The music effectively conveyed the nostalgia and terrors of the story — the brutal Middle Passage, the day dreaming, the hot sun, the hard labor, the hope and faith that could not be entirely extinguished. Henderson played the flurrying solo part beautifully and with emotion that clearly infected the rest of the players, and Daniel led with passion and control.
The bittersweet contrast between the literal text and the abstract, polyrhythmic and expressionistic music was one of the piece’s great rewards.
Henderson returned for a short encore before intermission, playing Samuel Taylor-Coleridge’s lovely “Novelletten,” a sort of vocalese for violin with touches of Brahms and the blues.
Dvorak’s popular Symphony No. 9 closed the show. Daniel took things at a clip, which occasionally challenged the players. Overall, it was a spirited performance, if shaky in places, and hard not to hum along to.