Newcomers to music performed Saturday evening by the Boston Symphony Orchestra will not soon forget the names Florence Price and Adolphus Hailstork, or a title such as Duke Ellington’s A Tone Parallel to Harlem, or jazz-classical crossovers such as James Carter in Roberto Sierra’s saxophone concerto. America truly displayed herself at Symphony Hall.
Thomas Wilkins, the BSO’s Germeshausen Youth and Family Concerts Conductor, took the podium in a rare concert of music of three African-Americans. Puerto Rican-born Sierra wrote his Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra for the eminent jazz saxophonist James Carter.
While with an overall reserved approach, the cool clockwork conducting of Wilkins unlocked outpourings of America from southern small-city serenity to metropolitan blare. Unarguably, his programing, breaking from norms, put a glowing spotlight on the works of composers too-little heard live. And perhaps that may be one very good reason why this concert in particular felt fresh, invigorating, and informative.
Snatches from the printed handout recalled our city in 1906, when “Florence Price graduated from Boston’s New England Conservatory as a pianist and organist; she also studied composition there.” With widening horizons, “She wrote her Third Symphony in 1940 on a commission from the WPA.”
An American Port of Call (1985) of Adophus Hailstork, the opener for the unique concert, “captures the strident…energy of a busy American port city” and that would be Norfolk Virginia, host to a naval base and one of the busiest commercial ports in the U.S. His ten-minute overture seemed to have been shot from out of nowhere, ever inviting in its orchestral bustling and cosmopolitan flair. Somehow, its symphonic narrative projected authentic vividness, all the while remaining delightfully inscrutable. Hailstork took his bows saluting the BSO for its part in this thriller.
James Carter can be found on YouTube in numerous jazz settings. Coming on stage at Symphony Hall wearing a tux and carrying two saxophones, he did a little curtsy that set the tone for Roberto Sierra’s Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra. Written for Carter, Sierra designed the concerto around classical and jazz values. Carter read from the score and in a traditional manner improvised the cadenzas, which were, however, hardly traditional in any Mozartean sense.
While Carter exhibited sureness in dexterity on both tenor and soprano phones, he topped that aspect of concerto with his own personal brand of parenthetical solo flourishes, popping, clicking, woofing amid scales and arpeggios. In one particular cadenza, Carter improvised kitten-like calls, tender and fetching, that drew the good-sized crowd to spontaneous laughter. The concerto is surely a showcase for Carter, the orchestra’s role leaning heavily on ambient enhancement and rhythmic comping.
For an encore, about a minute long, Carter embellished a familiar melody whose title escapes me. During intermission in the first balcony hallway, one descriptive response could be heard coming from an energized young man: “Insane, crazy!”
Back to real feel with Wilkins’s rearrangement of three of the four movements of the Florence Price’s Third. He thinks of this “Symphonic Reflections” as a tone poem. BSO notes tell us that only one recording of the full symphony is currently available. I would add that the Yale Symphony Orchestra under Toshiuki Shimada gave the east coast premiere in October of 2016.
Wilkins and the BSO achieved Price’s radiant reverence, folksy Juba dancing, and, in the words of the composer, “a cross-section of Negro life and psychology as it is today, influenced by urban life north of the Mason and Dixon line.” Yet, this is a loving work, one reaching out with inimitable flashes of a personal musicality that symphonically addresses our melting-pot, America.
Also in the jazz spectrum, Duke Ellington’s tone poem A Tone Parallel to Harlem concluded the exceptional concert. A wondrous opening of blaring and sliding brass wound up in a brass overload. Standout solos came from the BSO trombone, clarinet, and tenor sax. A harp on stage could not be heard; the strings mostly disappearing in Big Band licks. The scoring of the work partially contributed to this. Despite such misfiring, a citified impression of Harlem materialized.