The Salisbury Symphony Orchestra concluded its 39th season on Saturday, April 29, 2006, at Varick Auditorium of Livingstone College in Salisbury, NC, with a concert entitled "Down Home Blues."
While the music may have been blues, the atmosphere was anything but blue. Festive would certainly have been a better description.
The program opened with three works for orchestra: Blues Fantasy by Henry Wolking (b.1948), Shades of Blue by David Walker (b.1931), and Lullabye for a Jazz Baby by Arthur Cunningham (1929-97). All are works in a blues style, but very definitely written for symphony orchestra, and the orchestra was up to the challenge.
Wolking wrote Blues Fantasy in 1990 on a commission by the Colorado Springs Orchestra and its conductor Christopher Wilkins. It features wonderful solos for saxophone and trumpet, superbly executed by Tim Gordon and Jon Thornton, respectively.
David Baker is a trombonist, cellist, music educator, and chairman of the Jazz Department of the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana. Two selections of his Shades of Blue – "Boogie" and "Blues Waltz" – were presented. Boogie piano was played by Renee McCachren.
Arthur Cunningham was a student of both classical and jazz piano, educated at both the Juilliard School and Columbia University in New York. Lullabye for a Jazz Baby was originally written for piano as two separate pieces that were brought together and orchestrated as a tone poem on the advice of conductor André Kostelanetz. There has been one recording of this work, made by the Oakland Youth Symphony in 1969. That recording features harp solos by the present harpist of the Salisbury Symphony Orchestra, Helen Rifas, who reprised her performance with great style.
The first half of the program concluded with "A Tribute to Billie Holiday," arranged by Lee Norris (b.1933). There were six selections, all played with great feeling and spirit. These arrangements sounded very much like Hollywood music and made for a swinging finish before intermission.
The second half of the program, however, was worth the price of admission. Featured was the PCS Trio, a local group, with Ken Carroll on bass, Joe Ponds on piano, and Rebecca Stinson, vocals. They opened their set with Flip, Flap and Fly by Charles Calhoun and Willie Lou Turner. And they did all three (flip, flap, fly, that is) and more – to the rafters.
They followed with St. Louis Blues (W. C. Handy), Hard Times (Eric Clapton), and Every Day I Have the Blues (Memphis Slim), accompanied by the orchestra in arrangements by John Stafford. The set brought the house down and the audience up on its feet. The PCS Trio should be playing in Memphis or Detroit as well as Salisbury. They have the heart and soul of blues music.
But there was more. The program concluded with Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin (1898-1937), with Roy Eaton as piano soloist. Eaton has a most interesting history. Classically trained, he made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1951. His musical career was interrupted by service in the Korean War and 30 years in the advertising industry. He returned to the music world after his retirement and is now on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music. His performance, although hampered by a smallish grand piano and the less-than-wonderful acoustics of the auditorium, was, nonetheless, a fittingly grand climax to the evening.
Maestro David Hagy and his fine band are to be congratulated, not only for this rousing concert but also for a wonderful 39th season. The upcoming 40th anniversary season promises to be just as exciting.