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Yolanda Rabun has invested a substantial portion of her artistic life to keeping alive the memory and legacy of Nina Simone, the Tryon-NC-born pianist, singer, and Civil Rights icon who flashed like a slow-burning, persistent comet across our skies from her earliest days and whose star continues brightly to illuminate our lives. The presence of these two artists – the former embodying the latter – graced the Hayti Heritage Center as guests of the Durham Symphony Orchestra for its truly spectacular season finale. Maestro William Henry Curry conducted and served as master of ceremonies, demonstrating his keen insight into Simone's life and career and overseeing some remarkably fine playing from the DSO Chamber Orchestra. Also on hand to back up Rabun was a powerhouse combo consisting of pianist Chuckey Robinson, bassist Christian Sharp, drummer Orlandus Perry, and percussionist Brevan Hamden.
The program reminded us of the immense range of Simone's art, which went far beyond her protest songs – several of which were nonetheless heard. We were also reminded that she meant to be a classical pianist, and she found lifelong solace in classical music, despite experiencing astonishing discrimination as a young black woman seeking to enter a (basically) closed field, even at the level of advanced education. (Just days before her death, the Curtis Institute sought to make amends by awarding Simone an honorary doctorate.) All this and more we re-discovered at this amazing tribute concert. Readers seeking more information may wish to visit the recent documentary film, available on Netflix, and from which several excerpts were shown. The artist's autobiography is also essential reading.
The DSO offered several selections by Bach, Simone's favorite composer, and by Handel, comprising dance movements from the First Orchestral Suite by the former and an overture, festive arrival, and courante from one of the latter's oratorios. These selections were radiantly played by the Handel-sized orchestra of around 20 players including several exceptionally fluent woodwind artists. Hayti's stage is shallow, but its lip extends into the hall, and most of the players were forward of the arch, permitting the sound to well up in the room. The results were remarkably fine.
The rest of the program involved Rabun, variously accompanied by the combo or the combo and the orchestra in combination (no puns intended). The selections reflected Simone's wide-ranging – the word "universal" would not be inappropriate – interests. These ranged from "Little Liza Jane" -–electrifying in its power and propulsive drive – to "Something Wonderful" (from The King and I) to "Marriage is for Old Folks (But Not for Me)" to a breath-taking rendition of "Sinner Man" to "I Loves You Porgy." Simone came to vivid life in Rabun's singing, as those familiar with the former's many recordings can surely attest. (There is a wealth of material on YouTube.)
Part two brought a Billie Holliday song – the profoundly moving "(Hush Now) Don't Explain" – plus the protest songs "Mississippi Goddam" (inspired by the death of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham bombing) and "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black" plus a form of redemption in "I Hold No Grudge." Go listen to the originals and compare: Rabun delivered the goods – and in one hellvua hat, and on a Sunday, too! The combo was stoked to fever pitch. And the DSO joined in with precise attacks and happy smiles all around at this remarkable jam-fest.
The grand finale was "Feelin' Good," which most surely all who were present were, long since. And then the encore was the icing on the proverbial cake, as "I Put a Spell on You" evoked all that Simone stood for and the title of her book, too – not to mention the magic and pixie dust scattered by Rabun, the band, and the DSO on this occasion. Three cheers for our great, great local artists!
And special thanks to Frances Langstaff for her generous sponsorship of this memorable event.
PS I could not stop thinking of the great friend who introduced me to Simone on records, back when we had records and record stores and proprietors thereof who knew and loved music. It was Jimmy Thiem, at Thiem's Record Shop in downtown Raleigh, who told this then-early-teenage kid with a bent for Toscanini that I needed to go home and listen to this new Lp by an amazing NC-born singer – Nina Simone. RIP Jimmy, and thanks.