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More “Music in Changing Times”


Alston Blake

Thanksgiving Thursday saw the BSO unlock its second “American Promise” stream, in which Thomas Wilkins conducted Harlem Renaissance-centered works by Jessie Montgomery, William Grant Still, Duke Ellington, and chamber music by Osvaldo Golijov.

Following the introductory credits (I would have appreciated a longer pause for sonic re-setting) Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst (2012) burst forth; a lower-voiced run and staccato upper voices set the stage for vibrancy and intensity while retaining a charming delicacy later heard in the middle section where harmonics come in. This propulsive music for string orchestra meanders, but with a constant sense of direction – like a solar flare. The composer describes it:

This brief one-movement work for string orchestra is a play on imagery of rapidly changing musical colors. Exploding gestures are juxtaposed with gentle fleeting melodies in an attempt to create a multidimensional soundscape. A common definition of a starburst: “the rapid formation of large numbers of new stars in a galaxy at a rate high enough to alter the structure of the galaxy significantly” lends itself almost literally to the nature of the performing ensemble who premieres the work.

Clocking in at just over three minutes, this performance conveyed the changes, the explosion, and the juxtaposition of an A-B-A composition. Violinist and composer Montgomery does not favor one instrument over others; all strings partake in this rapid formation and contribute their significance to this stellar start of the stream.

In his following remarks Wilkins linked Montgomery’s music to the Harlem Renaissance, where the 1980s Lower East Side of the composer’s childhood brightly promised an encompassing affirmation just like that earlier, farther uptown cultural florescence. Musically we turned to post-World-War-II America rather than the 1920s. The journalism of Roi Ottley, who began a social history of Harlem in 1943, provided Duke Ellington inspiration and title for New World A-Coming. In this arrangement by Maurice Peress for piano and orchestra, Aaron Diehl (piano) joined Wilkins and members of the BSO on the extended stage of Symphony Hall. Its lush sound replete with vibrato and glissando, an expansive soundscape recalling film scores in its encompassing vision, and a melding of timbres and styles, this single movement work combines contrasting themes, styles, and voicings to present, as Ellington put it, “a tone parallel to the American Negro.” This complex work varies play and sadness, nodding to Modernism even as it foregrounds American blues and jazz idioms. A lengthy history compressed into some 13 minutes, this is also, perhaps foremost, an aspirational portrait of the utopia to come. Diehl embraced the shifting sands of style pervasive here, riffing with and off of the players.

Diehl and Wilkins, in an edited conversation from the emptied stage, reflected on Ellington and set up the music of William Grant Still, emphasizing the role of silence in this music. Fittingly, then, we next heard the piano and orchestra version of Still’s Out of the Silence. The strings provide accompaniment to a solo flute line, beautifully intoned by Elizabeth Klein, and Diehl back at the keyboard. This orchestration of the middle movement from Seven Traceries, for piano (composed 1939, published 1940) seems to owe much to the composer’s marriage in 1939 to Verna Arvey, a pianist, journalist, and writer. She described Out of the Silence: “only in meditation does one discover beauties remote from the problems of earth.” The floating melody of the flute, at times rubbing against the harmonies of the strings, hands off the theme to the piano; this orchestrated version of the music blends seamlessly across the voices. Ethereal, introspective, reflective: this miniature (approximately six minutes in performance) sounded fluid and memorable, especially with the flute line which can sustain more fully than a piano.

Callie Crossley then narrated a feature, “The Harlem Renaissance.” Combining British Pathé film footage with a voiceover script, this segment unpacked the history of a cultural moment which, despite the name we know it under, was not limited to one part of Manhattan island. The Harlem Renaissance now usually conjures different genres of artistic expression (jazz, house parties, literature); in this section we heard about classical tradition composers such as Florence Price and William Dawson, classical singers including tenor Roland Hayes and contralto Marian Anderson, who crossed boundaries and brought jazz and spirituals together in concert in prestigious classical music venues. These creators “brought forth a soundtrack for the era that reflected its ideals.” This segment continues the earlier historical narrative, touched upon in the first concert of the season [reviewed HERE] Now the story unfolds:

From the late 19th-century American composers of classical music were trained in techniques, genres, and forms that originated in Europe. Composers of the Harlem Renaissance adapted those forms to speak the truth of their experience, infusing their work with elements of Black folk traditions, work songs, spirituals, and the blues. They fulfilled the vision of Harlem Renaissance leaders like James Weldon Johnson, who wrote, ‘There will yet come great Negro composers who will take this music and voice through it not only the soul of their race, but the soul of America.

With nods towards composers Nathaniel Dett and Clarence Cameron White, the focus turned to Still as an exemplar of the genre-crossing and blending characteristic of the age. Classical, blues, and jazz music married in Still’s Afro-American Symphony (1931). Similarly, Ellington chafed against boundaries (generic and technological) as he explored long-form musical compositions that expressed his truth and his experience (as in Creole Rhapsody, Mood Indigo, and Black, Brown and Beige). Not all were prepared to hear these truths or learn from these experiences. “The promise of the Harlem Renaissance was interrupted by the effects of the Great Depression, the end of Prohibition, World War II, and the continuing prejudice that gripped America.” The example of these creators and their works endure, testaments to “a spirit of possibility and promise that continues to inspire artists to raise their voices in a diverse American cultural landscape.”


We returned to Symphony Hall for more Ellington (again, arranged by Maurice Peress) – Come Sunday for narrator and orchestra with narrative text prepared and narrated by Charlotte Blake Alston. Come Sunday is a jazz standard taken from Black, Brown and Beige as recorded in the late 1950s and sung by Mahalia Jackson [original track HERE]; this performance included a new riff on it: “In creating a text parallel to Ellington’s music, master storyteller and librettist Charlotte Blake Alston glossed on the composer’s original narrative conception, along with the words sung on the LP, to paint a cinematic, visceral picture of a reflective and joyous Sunday in Harlem.” I assume the gloss owes something to Ellington’s 33-page verse narrative once held by the composer’s sister, Ruth Boatrwight. Peress (in old liner notes I consulted) describes this narrative as tracing “the history of an African named Boola, and tell[ing] of his arrival in America by slave ship, of his servitude in a strange and beautiful land, his emancipation and his discovery of the blues”; this is “Ellington’s philosophical metaphor for black survival in a white world.” This is a challenging piece to review; Ellington’s music and Blake Alston’s storytelling both deserve our attention. The combination makes for a vivid and riveting performance which I watched repeatedly trying to focus on one or the other but never succeeding in divorcing the two. At the same time, the overall effect of this performance is altogether different than the original Ellington track. Ellington’s hymnic reflection becomes more the upbeat ecstasy of revival in this amalgamated performance. This is music confirming sacred humanity and itself an act of fiercely loving each other (to borrow from Blake Alston’s text). Peress’ orchestration has less of the blues and more of panoramic vistas. I have explored several recordings of Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige to discern what the BSO is performing here. What the BSO presents, musically, seems more an abridgment of Peress’ “Black, Brown and Beige Suite” (recorded by the American Composers Orchestra with Peress conducting, HERE). With Blake Alston’s narration, we heard another version of this protean work of Ellington’s which never achieved a definitive form.

Wilkins’s introductory remarks to the Finale of William Grant Still’s Symphony 4, “Autochthonous” emphasized the pure music aspect of so many of his compositions. This movement presents as “an affirmation of the American spirit—all of us, what we can be.” The music is to be played slowly and reverently, which Wilkins characterizes as instructions to the listener: “Go forth in this sense of affirmation. Go ahead in this notion of believing something more positive about the future. But be very patient with it, and be very reverent.” As a movement, this excerpt showed a remarkable economy of theme, starting with a theme that is short, full of longing, complete in and of itself yet striving and searching. This develops into music of another character, at times more bittersweet, in an interesting expansion of classical expectations, reflecting perhaps a more home-grown perspective or an inclusion of new themes and ideas, coupled with a more sinuous, more organic, development. Still describes this movement as expressing “the warmth and the spiritual side of the American people.” The culmination of this symphony approaches more stentorian pronouncements without sacrificing this unique character and voice. I found a solace and also aspiration here, and look forward to the day the BSO performs the symphony in its entirety.

Osvaldo Golijov offered words of introduction for his Lullaby and Doina (first performed April 29, 2001). The Boston Chamber Players: Elizabeth Rowe (flute), William R. Hudgins (clarinet), Haldan Martinson (violin); Steven Ansell (viola), Oliver Aldort (cello), and Edwin Barker (double bass) took part in this recording. Drawing from his film music for 2000 The Man Who Cried and crafted as a countermelody to the aria “Je crois entendre encore” from Bizet’s opera, Les Pêcheurs de perles), Golijov embraces folk tunes and traditional modes. The lullaby is more nostalgic than soporific. This leads seamlessly into the second part, based on a fast-paced Romanian folk dance that incorporates different traditions. The work concludes with a brief return to the thematic material of the first, lullaby, section rounding out this strong performance. Golijov’s music, like what preceded it in this broadcast, draws inspiration from a more expansive palette; that said, it pursued different paths and created different sonic realities that would have better suited another program.

On the one hand, in this equally enthralling and aggravating event, hearing the BSO embrace the music of Still and Ellington gave great pleasure. On the other hand, the excerpting of movements from larger wholes or the re-assembling of works in new ways are not what we expect from this venerable ensemble, especially as this season makes its pitch for their fundamental role at the forefront of realizing the aspirational American Promise. Why not program all of Grant’s Fourth Symphony? More Ellington? Why not all of Perless’s suite from Black, Brown and Beige? Why not program chamber music that includes pianist Aaron Diehl? Wilkins led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Still’s entire fourth symphony in February of 2019. Diehl performed on that concert, too, playing—as best I can discern—Gershwin. Surely Boston can acknowledge the musical contributions of other American orchestras, especially when it comes to the promise of building audiences for works less frequently heard here. Clearly the talent tapped for this program are able to deliver more; let them. We need to hear entire works, not just someone else’s highlights. Give the talented musicians of the BSO the full and complex works so they can give the visceral and moving performances we expect.

Thomas Wilkins and Diehl Converse

Previously, the keen and insightful remarks from the program annotators add to the quality of these shows. Now in the linked notes we get specifics about some works but not separate composer bios and “This concert in brief” descriptions of the program. With the filmed features and especially the inclusion of Golijov’s work I am left struggling to intuit a coherent, let alone compelling, narrative. I betook myself to the BSO’s online archives to explore the orchestra’s performance history with Still’s music—infrequent, and in recent years more Pops with Wilkins conducting than not. In 1937 Arthur Fiedler led the Boston Pops Orchestra in the full performance of Still’s first symphony; since then only symphonic movements or shorter works have been offered. The database records multiple performances of In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy. Surely the American Promise must return Still to regular rotation with entire works. Ellington has been heard more frequently, but mostly in Pops performances; inthe most recent BSO performance (2019), Thomas Wilkins conducted Ellington’s Harlem, a tone parallel (arranged Luther Henderson and Maurice Peress). Ellington himself presented Black, Brown and Beige in Symphony Hall in 1943 (one of only three complete performances of this work); you can read one concertgoer’s reflections in this article about Ellington in New England [HERE]. This storied part of Boston’s musical history is most worthy of including in this series (be it feature or notes).

The intellectually curious audience members who wish to be educated about the works and their composers need more context, more detailed notes, and an inclusion of performance history as well as references to additional information (as was printed formerly at the end of the composer bios later in the booklet). I have tried to do some of that work here.

We can only acknowledge the BSO’s leading role in American culture when we also own the failures. Boston has espoused ideals but not attained them. Boston has made promises but not delivered on them. True inspiration and aspiration come from honest assessment and nuanced presentation to match nuanced musical performance. Then we can honor the possibility and the promise of these composers and the narrative argued for in this stream. In this current program the BSO commits a disservice to the composer, to the music, and to the audience. I hope future programs will offer us the better we all deserve.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra

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  1. This is a wonderful review of neglected music- I had the pleasure of performing with Ann Hobson Pilot ENNANGA for harp and strings by Still- Hawthorne Quartet (BSO members) and have included the 7 Traceries on my own programs, with Col-Taylor’s works. Gunther Schuller suggested I research his music at NEC library and I learned the piano transcriptions of Negro and African inspired pieces, organized Harold Wright and the Hawthorne guys to record his superb Quintet -KOCH label – it thrills me that finally rare works are being appreciated, heard, and recognized. It took an international movement to make it happen……………

    Comment by virginia eskin — December 2, 2020 at 10:56 am

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