New England Film Orchestra Black History Month Celebration Concert
As we were coming out of the pandemic last summer, I was invited to play an outdoor concert of film music with the New England Film Orchestra. Admittedly, as a bassoonist playing outside is not something I really strive to do often, but it was hard to resist the chance to play music that I have listened to for years and never thought I'd play in concert. Fast forward to this month and once again, with COVID restrictions lessening, the orchestra scheduled a program to celebrate Black History Month. You can find more information at their website.
I did want to just share a bit about the program which is really a fine blend of old an new music. There will be two works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (Danse Negre, Petit Suite) an English composer whose music is one of many rarities on this program. What these works, and really many of the older pieces on the program show are not just the attempt to bury this music by one establishment over another, but it also illustrates what is lost when we let academia drive what is considered "important" music. As we played through the Danse Negre it was clear that it is in that period of music that was in transition from the older Romanticism into the host of new trends in the era. While the more familiar Edward Elgar wrote a host of music like this, his music tends to appear far more frequently while Coleridge-Taylor's has been set off to the side as a curiosity. Hold on to that thought because that attitude is what keeps this music from receiving its due and admiration that it deserves.
If you have never heard William Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony you have missed a significant orchestral work that should be in the repertoire of every American orchestra. Ask yourself why this sits languishing in rented out manuscript (which in and of itself is a travesty!) while orchestras rush to play Gershwin. Do not get me wrong, Gershwin's music is a significant contribution to American music, but Dawson's symphony has so much more to offer. The intriguing polyrhythms and heterophonic moments are stunning to hear unfold in the orchestra. Orchestration is simply stunning and the emotional quality of the music is further enhanced by the harmonic writing. To prepare, I grabbed my old recording of this conducted by Leopold Stokowski. It is obvious that this was necessarily edited with some stops and starts that sometimes drop a beat and the orchestra has not quite got the hang of what this music is communicating. Yet, as I listened I did have to admire the sheer audacity and "risk" that Stokowski took when he premiered this in 1934 and had to wait nearly three decades to record it.
I have heard William Grant Still's music mostly from his chamber music. He is in that line of impressionist-style colorists that are among the forgotten American composers who did not embrace the new Americana or atonal directions favored by later academics. The orchestra is playing his gorgeous Serenade for Orchestra. I have to admit it was hard not to weep when those opening bars began and as we read this music. Such beautiful thematic writing and harmony so brilliantly orchestrated all makes this yet another of those pieces that should be a frequent visitor to pops and regular symphony programs. As I drove home from that rehearsal, I could not decide if I had shed a tear because of the emotional content of this music, and/or for the loss our musical life has had by its neglect.
There will be some more recent works featured in the second half of the program. Voices blending African American popular styles with symphonic music and challenging our technical abilities for rhythmic precision against this exciting music.
With this concert, I felt like I had been given a real privilege, a responsibility even, to make this music come alive as best as possible for our audience. I had to let go of the thought as to "why is this music not played more" because, face it, we all know why this music has been well gatekept. As a lifelong enthusiast for American music, I have hoped to play those pieces by the likes of Paine, Parker, Chadwick, MacDowell, and Beach. But if that never happens, I give thanks that I was given the opportunity to perform the pieces on this program. If you are in the Boston area, I hope you can join us. And, if you are a conductor or performer, program these pieces as a regular part of your season not because it you "have to", but because it is simply great music.
One last moment to share from early this February also inadvertently reminded me about our teaching choices in Music Appreciation. As part of the regular curriculum, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas invariably comes up to talk about emotional writing and that ground bass lament aria. Usually I use the Listening Guide materials and we watch the structure chart as we listen. But for this piece, I decided to show a clip that featured the great Jessye Norman. I had forgotten to close the back door of the classroom, and when I went to do so, there was a young African American student standing at the door watching and listening. "Can I help you?" I asked. "Who is that?" he asked. "That is Jessye Norman, one of the great sopranos of the 20th Century." "I had no idea there were black singers who sang that kind of music," he said. "Well, she was one of several who helped open the door for others to do so. You're welcome to watch and feel free to take the class next term if you like," I replied. "Wow" was his response. This is why I still enjoy teaching music history in this setting. That door was open in more ways than one.
The concert will be at the Arlington (MA) Town Hall, Saturday, February 26, 7:30 pm.