Laudably, the North Carolina Symphony has made a special tradition of events marking Black History Month. The 2013 installment marked the observance of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on Jan. 1, 1863, and the NCS program at Meymandi Hall, directed by William Henry Curry, was particularly moving, with an evening of four American compositions, three of them bearing directly on the Civil War. The evening opened with an unfamiliar work by an unfamiliar composer, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" , by Roy Harris (1898-1979). Harris, a contemporary of Aaron Copland, and a student of Nadia Boulanger, is known today by very few works, particularly his Symphony No. 3. To judge by "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," history has done Harris a disservice, for the piece, commissioned by RCA, and based on a familiar Union tune from the Civil War, shows an interesting and original voice, with none of the usual stylistic clichés that one might fear in an arrangement of such familiar material, and some unexpectedly modern touches (stacks of parallel fourths). Perhaps it is time for a Harris revival by the NCS?
Next was the very striking The Wound Dresser by John Adams, which was premiered on February 24, 1989 by baritone Sanford Sylvan with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, with the composer conducting. Before the performance I wondered at the choice by the NCS to omit the printed text for the Whitman poem used by Adams from the program, and indeed it was not projected for the audience either. But in fact the poem is so graphic and shocking with regard to the nurse’s work in changing bandages of the wounded that it would be almost too much to take. The entire work’s tone is set by the poem’s words “in silence, in dreams’ projections,” opening with a pianissimo roll from the timpani, and eery sounds from the strings and synthesizer. When it was written, at what was perhaps the darkest moment of the AIDS epidemic, the piece had a particular and specific resonance in setting the words of a gay American poet describing his care for suffering, wounded American men. Now it can be heard more generally as an expression of compassion for the war-wounded. It was beautifully rendered with fine singing from soloist Scott MacLeod. I disagree with the unfortunate choice of the NCS to amplify MacLeod’s singing. The piece itself is written so quietly that the voice projects over the accompaniment, and MacLeod’s beautiful baritone could easily fill the hall by itself.
Concluding the first half was the famous "Lincoln Portrait" of Copland from 1942, with David Hartman as narrator, accompanied by projection of images, mostly from the Civil War, entitled The Eternal Struggle, by James Westwater. The combination of Copland’s music, Hartman’s oration, and the graphic images chosen by Westwater, was emotionally draining, particularly coming after the Adams work. I heard fellow listeners remark that the piece was “magnificent,” a judgment I would certainly agree with.
The second half was devoted to the Symphony No. 2 of Charles Ives (written ca. 1897-1901). Ives is famous for his “difficult” works, and the Second Symphony stands between the composer’s works from his school days at Yale and the advanced vocabulary of the later pieces, so that while the harmonic and melodic vocabulary is still conservative, the actual musical narrative of the piece can be so unusual and complex that it is hard to follow – the rhetoric is far from classic, and the structure would be hard to diagram succinctly. The effect is not a little like your eccentric uncle who, in telling you a story, is constantly digressing as he remembers items that have perhaps only a tangential influence on the outcome. There are interesting moments, yes, but how they all hang together, that’s another question. In comparison with the direct effect made by the pieces on the first half, it might have been easy to conclude that Ives did not have so much to contribute, and indeed the concluding applause was rather lukewarm in contrast to that received by the Copland. Thanks to the NCS for programming this important piece, but perhaps the concert itself might have been more effective with the Ives on the first half, and the three more modern works on the second.