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The Western Piedmont Symphony made a triumphant return to the P. E. Monroe Auditorium on the campus of Lenoir-Rhyne University for its second Masterworks concert of the season, titled “Dance Machine.” It was one of the most unusual, engaging, and fun concerts I have ever attended.
Before beginning the actual music, Hickory City Manager Mick Berry read a proclamation from Mayor Rudy Wright and the City Council proclaiming November 20, 2010 as John Gordon Ross and Sally Rocco Ross Day, in honor of Mr. Ross’ twenty years as Music Director of the Western Piedmont Symphony and Ms. Ross’ twenty years as a music teacher in the Hickory schools and as a member of the cello section of the Western Piedmont Symphony.
The program opened with “Benediction” by J. Mark Scearce (b.1961). Scearce is currently Director of Music at N. C. State University, and was formerly Composer-in-Residence of the Western Piedmont Symphony.
“Benediction” was written for the commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day in 1993, and was inspired by the tragic shooting death of a young man in Raleigh. The work was composed to lend aid and comfort to the young man’s friends and family. It features three antiphonal trumpets, each utilizing different tone colors, never blending with the orchestra, and later expanding into well-known hymn tunes. The trumpet parts were played expertly by Mark Dulin, William Lawing, and Tim Phillips, and the orchestra provided rich collaboration to a musical composition filled with sadness, but at the same time, hope.
To follow, the orchestra presented Archaic Ritual by William Grant Still (1895-1978). Written in 1946, it was later used as a dance sequence in one of his operas. The work is in three movements: “Chant,” “Dance Before the Altar,” and “Possession.” Although minimalism in music did not begin until the 1960s, this work begins to sound like one of the early precursors of that movement, as many of the phrases and motifs are repeated from section to section, with minor changes as they progress. Sonically, this is an expansive work, and I have never heard the Western Piedmont's strings sound so lush.
The featured work of the evening was Voodoo Concerto No. 1 for violin and orchestra by Daniel Bernard Roumain (b.1971), with the composer as soloist. DBR, as he is also known, is a Haitian-American composer, performer, educator, violinist, and band leader. He is also currently a visiting professor of composition at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music.
The concerto is divided into three movements. Any attempt to describe the music would be like trying to describe all of the contents of a large grocery store in one sentence! The music is classical, jazz, bluegrass, Caribbean, baroque, romantic, and contemporary, partly written and partly improv.
“Filtering,” the first movement, features techno textures and rhythms and engages various sections of the orchestra, each of which was asked to stand during their highlighted parts. A remarkable cadenza by the soloist included themes of the “Star-Spangled Banner" as well as other works.
The second movement, “Prayer,” starts in a more contemplative vein. It then veers off into a series of dialogs with various solo instruments in which the instrumentalist states an improvised theme and the violin soloist answers with his own version, and back and forth. The soloists were Mark Dulin, trumpet, Shawn Roberts, drums, Stephanie Lipka, contrabassoon, Telaina Odom, clarinet, and Rip Nolan and Aaron Craven, double bass. I suppose one could call it riffs and retorts, played splendidly by instrumentalists and violinist alike. Telaina Odom, who is Properties Manager for the orchestra, and who was serving her final concert before moving on to other endeavors, is not even a regular member of the clarinet section, but she stole the show for sure.
The final movement, “Tribe,” , based on primitive repetition, has all the stops pulled out. Mr. Roumain makes uses all the known techniques for playing a violin – bow, pizzicato, spiccato, etc. – and some hitherto unknown, but he also can make his instrument sound like an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, a double bass, a turntable, and a drum kit, with all sorts of percussion instruments. What would Stradivarius have thought?
Anyway, this was a remarkable soloist and a remarkable concert for a remarkable orchestra.