For those who have attended past sessions with Thomas Wilkins and his BSO come the expectations of a vitalizing, if not swinging, time at Symphony Hall. Thursday night did not let down with performances of ballet music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Duke Ellington, and the Boston premiere of La Lección Tres with composer Victor Wooten on, of all instruments, the electric bass.
And for all this, and more, Wilkins should be applauded beyond his role as BSO Artistic Advisor for Education and Community Engagement. The seasoned Wilkins’s fluid ways might be likened to those of a swimmer, one of his conducting motions somewhat akin to the butterfly stroke. His streamlined and gliding motions induced an ideal listening space.
This extraordinary jaunt should not be missed. You can still catch it on Saturday evening at 8.
There was no dancing, just the music, so hearing Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha Suite from the namesake ballet for the very first time unmistakably transported us to Victorian times. Coleridge-Taylor had recast his cantata on Longfellow’s epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha in 1912, the year the composer passed away. With the cantata, his hugely successful debut in London at age 23, came an expressiveness now familiar, yet one still revealing an unusual gift. [Listen HERE to the publisher’s favorite aria from the cantata.]
Could you believe your ears, those opening string chords veering much more toward a Florence Price or an Ellington than a Ravel? Taking on a 19th-century resolve, though, what was familiar faced rejuvenation. On this first hearing, I confess to getting very pleasantly lost in the music. How satisfying to put the booklet aside and just listen! And, by the way, the BSO booklet incorrectly listed more than the five movements of the suite by starting with 1. Spring followed by I. The Wooing.
Moving to another time—the now—acclaimed electric bassist Victor Wooten took the stage amidst hoots and hollers from around the hall. Wooten’s greeting had Wilkins asking, “How come you didn’t do that when I came out here?” Resplendently dressed, Wooten would go to two eye-catching electric basses with a bow.
His 25-minute, three-movement concerto-like La Lección Tres reminded of another recent Boston premiere, John Williams’s Violin Concerto No. 2. As with Williams’s four-panel composition, Wooten’s triptych took to advancing multifarious soloistic and orchestral adventures. Altogether, Wooten spun a complex and totally absorbing web, at once intricate and direct, ultimately producing a synergy between the artist and Wilkins’s BSO.
Thankfully, Wooten and his amplified electric basses bypassed distortion and low (what are those?) tones, instead, reaching awesome lucidity. Furthermore, take the virtuoso—that he is— out of the equation, and think real thing, even with the comedic dialogues between Wooten’s electric bass and the BSO acoustic basses that gave a nod to the cadenza. No further description here other than what fun that was, don’t miss this!
Upon returning to the podium, this time receiving a round of hoots and hollers (including my own, another first for me), Wilkins responded with “That’s enough pity.”
To yet another time, Ellington’s 1970 Suite from The River, sometimes echoing film noir soundtracks, stood firmly on American individualism. Imagining dance came easily. The Duke’s first movement, also entitled “The Spring,” did not feature a bird-like flute as in the Coleridge-Taylor, but a furtive horn. Symphonic strings imagined river currents. The Meander had that ’40s film noir shadowing with muted trumpets, some high stepping brass, and wraparound harmonies. The Giggling Rapids started off with a spunky piano then jumped into swinging dialogues between winds and brass. Hymnic blues and a strumming harp banjo style in the final movement, Village of the Virgins, rounded out a very cool BSO-Ellington take.