Symphony orchestras typically schedule concerts featuring composers of African heritage in January to celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or in February, in recognition of Black History Month. Not so the Western Piedmont Symphony, which, for the third year running, has presented its concert in November, this year titled "Freedom Road." Little did Music Director John Gordon Ross know when he programmed this concert that it would fall just four days after the most historic presidential election in United States history.
Following what seemed to be a more-spirited-than-usual "Star Spangled Banner," the orchestra launched into "The Bamboula" (Rhapsodic Dance No. 1), Op. 75 by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912). Coleridge-Taylor was a British composer of English and African (Sierra Leone) descent, and a leading exponent of Pan-Africanism, which emphasized the importance of a shared African heritage as the benchmark of black cultural identity. He became popular in America when he toured to conduct his choral work "Hiawatha's Wedding Feast," based on Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha.
"Bamboula" is derived from an African melody, the title stemming from the African drum known as the "bula." This is a rousing, dance-like work, and the orchestra played it with great gusto and passion.
In a quieter vein, the orchestra played "Summerland" by William Grant Still (1895-1978), who is often referred to as "the dean" of African-American composers. "Summerland" was originally written for piano, and was then arranged by the composer for many different combinations of instruments, including the one heard here utilizing full orchestra and flute solo and harp. Laura Stevens, the orchestra's principal flute, played the solo sublimely, and Helen Rifas, as always, was splendid on the harp.
The first half of the program closed with Southern Harmony: Four Aspects for Orchestra by Ulysses Kay (1917-1995). Kay was a prolific composer, and wrote works for orchestra, chorus, chamber ensemble, piano, voice, organ, and band, as well as scores for film and television.
Southern Harmony was commissioned by a consortium of orchestras in the southeastern United States, and was premiered in 1974 by the North Carolina Symphony. It is derived from hymn tunes popular in the south in the nineteenth century. This is a complex work in the neoclassical style, and is reminiscent of the compositional style of Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), under whom Kay studied at Yale. The music is written with many layers, weaving in and out, multiple rhythms, and a plenitude of solos and percussion effects, all carried out with great aplomb by the orchestra.
The second half of the program consisted of Songs of Harriet Tubman by Nkeiru Okoye (born 1972). Featuring soprano Kishna Davis, Songs is comprised of the four arias sung by the title character in the opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom, which tells the story of Tubman's early life as a slave in Maryland, the events leading up to her escape to freedom, and her transformation from slave to pioneering conductor of the Underground Railroad. Each of the arias opens with a name relating to a stage in her life, from "Araminta" as a child, "Harriet" as a teenager asserting her rites of womanhood, "Harriet Tubman" now married and a free woman, and as a seasoned freedom fighter, "Moses, the Liberator.” The composer, Dr. Okoye, served as narrator between each of the arias.
Ms. Davis has won wide critical acclaim throughout the United States and Europe, notably for her portrayals of Aida in Verdi's opera of the same name, and Bess in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Dressed in a costume suggestive of that of a slave, Ms. Davis' performance was spectacular, her voice sumptuous and expressive, and her portrayal of each stage in Tubman's life transcendent. With her powerful and clarion voice, the final words, "Free...free…free," resounded throughout the hall.