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Conductor Randolph Foy and the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra took on an ambitious program of works by twentieth-century African-American composers in their concert Thursday night, April 24, 2003. Held in NCSU's Tally Student Center Ballroom, the 27 players gave competent and well-rehearsed renditions of music by Roque Cordero, George Walker and Duke Ellington. But they rose to different plane on the second half in two works by 32-year-old Daniel Bernard Roumain.
Certainly part of the reason for this was the presence of Roumain himself, who performed in both his compositions. Although he holds a doctorate in music from the University of Michigan, he is anything but academic in person. He has a winning smile, a self-deprecating humor and a youthful personality, enhanced by his dozens of braided dreadlocks and his casual dress. But when he begins to sing or play the violin, there is no question of his sincerity and dedication.
Grace is a short piece for orchestra and voice from 1996, which takes as its starting point the well-known hymn, "Amazing Grace." The tune is never really heard in its entirely, only fragmented phrases layered within the orchestral accompaniment to the sung text. Roumain's words, which ask for the grace to overcome the difficulties and corruptions of the world today, have something of a hip-hop cadence but here were sung lyrically and sweetly, expressing universal sentiments. Foy kept the short, sudden instrumental entrances crisp, allowing the drum beat to move things along, yet making the hushed moments suitably dramatic. The counterpoint between Roumain and the orchestra gave the piece a satisfying richness. The final quiet measures were hymn-like, Roumain's wordless vocalizing harmonizing reverently with a lone piccolo.
The concert ended on a tremendous high with Roumain's 2002 composition, Voodoo Violin Concerto, a tribute to his Haitian heritage. The composer's stated intention was to invoke atmosphere of voodoo rituals, which combine hypnotic frenzy with religious (specifically Catholic) tradition. After a soulful opening cadenza, Roumain launched into intense, fast bowing in repetitive scales which varied and evolved over the course of the first movement. Its title, "Filtering," refers to the technique of playing not only near the violin bridge ("ponticello") but actually on it, producing a ghostly, eerie tone. The movement builds to several concentrated climaxes in between more languid sections. Much of the enjoyment came from watching Roumain arch his body to the beat and seeing him meld with the music.
The second movement, "Prayer," was a marvel of construction. It began simply with quiet piano chords, a flute soon joining in a lyrical folk-like melody, the violin eventually taking it up in a warm, mellow manner. Later, the piano and vibraphone begin pulsing, repetitive phrases against the violin line, adding appealing contrast. The movement picks up a jazzy beat mid-section, allowing Roumain to show off his talents as a performer. First, there was an intense cadenza which included intriguing percussive elements from finger taps on the violin's neck. Then Roumain played out the rest of the movement walking slowly down the aisle, around the audience, and back to the orchestra. What could have been gimmicky was handled with an involving concentration and spirituality.
The final movement, "Tribe," opened with a strong beat accompanied by an amplified string bass in agitated little riffs. Roumain then began an increasingly hypnotic bowing which led to a highly charged finish, Roumain jumping to the beat in some sections. Throughout, Foy and the players were obviously inspired by both composer and performer, turning in a finely honed, joyful portrayal.
The work is imminently accessible, as proved by the prolonged and sincere standing ovation it evoked. The audience included many parents and young children, most of whom had been involved in Roumain's week-long residency here, which had included workshops and performances in all levels of the public schools.
The works on the first half were all less immediate and could have used more of the abandon and spirit displayed in the Roumain pieces. Roque Cordero, an Afro-Panamanian composer who spent most of his life as a professor of composition in the US, wrote his Eight Miniatures from 1944 to 1948. Some less than a minute and none more than three, they range from a off-beat march, to an Africanized waltz to meditative nocturne. The overall mood is dark, with edgy little stops and starts. Foy had the orchestra on their toes, making the sudden endings and languorous moods equally effective. However, the pieces are too brief and cool to make much impression.
George Walker won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for his long life in composition. One his earliest was the 1941 Lyric for Strings, a short single-movement memorial to his grandmother. The sweet, slightly sorrowful work has a quiet peacefulness, nicely evoked from the cellos and bass at the beginning. The strings were admirably together in the quieter moments but there were intonation problems during the more forceful mid-section.
Duke Ellington's music for the ballet The River depicts birth, life and rebirth. The four excerpts played here contain many of the signature Ellington elements - massed brass, exotic melodies and sophisticated syncopation. What was lacking was a real feeling of the style, the playing and conducting constricted and fragmented. Nonetheless, the brass and the woodwinds were especially powerful and the quiet bass and drum solo that ends the work was well executed.
Foy and the Raleigh Civic Symphony Association deserve much praise for planning and pulling off this program. With the rarely-heard selections, the presence of a vibrant young composer and the involvement with the public schools, the program stands as a fine example of what classical music organizations need to produce to be an integral part of the community.