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The Western Piedmont Symphony presented its second Masterworks concert of the season at First Baptist Church with a concert titled "Gospel!" The program, while not especially religious, was dedicated to music and musicians African-American.
The concert opened with "Dances in the Canebrakes" by Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953), who was the first Africa-American woman composer to achieve national recognition. Born in Arkansas, she graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1906 with an Artist's Diploma in organ and a Teacher's Diploma in piano. She was a very versatile composer and was prolific in all genres, including symphonies, piano music, art songs, arrangements of spirituals, and popular music for commercial purposes.
"Dances in the Canebrakes", originally written for piano and later orchestrated by fellow Arkansan William Grant Still, is a suite of three dances "based on authentic Negro rhythms." The first movement, Nimble Feet, is the liveliest of the three dances. Tropical Moon, the second movement, is more relaxed, and the final movement, Silk Hat And Walking Cane, describes couples dancing around in high-step, hoping to win the prize, a cake. Thus was born the cakewalk, which became a very popular dance, especially in Europe. Throughout the entire work, the orchestra danced with rhythm and syncopation, stepping high and with the elegant grace of a gifted dancer.
Samuel Barber's (1910-81) Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14, concluded the first half of the concert. Composed in 1939, the concerto is predominately lyrical, with a warm cantabile melody. It stands firmly in the neo-Romantic tradition for which Barber was exemplary. This concerto was, however, not without controversy. After completing the first two movements, the intended soloist complained that the music was not showy enough. Barber then composed the third movement as a virtuoso perpetual motion, which was immediately deemed unplayably difficult by the soloist! It took a student from the Curtis Institute of Music to demonstrate its playability.
The soloist for this performance was Kelly Hall-Tompkins, who had absolutely no difficulty in playing any of the movements. Ms. Hall-Tompkins, who grew up in Greenville, SC, now lives in New York City, where she leads a very busy solo, chamber music, and orchestral career. The concerto's first two movements sing from beginning to end, and Ms. Hall-Tompkins' violin did a lot of singing with a gorgeous voice and splendid tone. The final movement, marked Presto in moto perpetuo, stands in dramatic contrast, calling for violinistic acrobatics and ending with a brilliant flourish, all of which the soloist accomplished without a bit of hesitation and with great beauty. Her playing has been described by the New Jersey Star-Ledger as "…precise and well measured, very clean and sweet...one cannot argue with the technical expertise or fluency expressed..." and I certainly concur. I was so impressed that I would like to hear more — much more. She has released one CD, and I purchased the only available copy that I could find on the internet.
Also of note, Anna Morris, Principal Oboe, played the oboe solo that opens the second movement with beauty and serenity.
The program concluded with Symphony No. 3, ("Sunday Symphony"), by William Grant Still (1895-1978). Still, who was known as "the dean of Afro-American Composers", was the first African-American composer to write a symphony and have it performed by a major symphony orchestra. He also wrote operas, orchestral, vocal, keyboard, and chamber music. The third symphony is actually the last written of his five symphonies, and was not performed during his lifetime. Its four movements describe the worship activities of a typical Sunday: The Awakening, Prayer, Relaxation, and Day's End and a New Beginning. Still believed that the communicative power of music was a gift from God. The orchestra played with feeling and passion. The strings were lush, the winds bright and clear, and the percussion rhythmic. The English horn solo that opens the second movement was stunningly played by Jennifer Roberts. It is a shame that the Western Piedmont Symphony Orchestra does not have a recording contract; this performance was far superior to that on the only commercially-available recording of the work.