The Du Bois Orchestra continues its mission to overcome social exclusion and elevate underrepresented composers alongside standard orchestral repertoire in front of large, diverse audiences. That meant that on Saturday at First Church Cambridge, the Negro Folk Symphony of William Dawson, a composer mostly known for his imaginative arrangements of spirituals, took its place between two staples of the canon: Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Op. 35.
Under Artistic Director Dominique Hoskin, the muted woodwind chords beginning the overture effectively set the woodland scene of Shakespeare’s play, soon inhabited by the highly energetic flittering of fairies, nymphs, and sprites whispering to each other sotto voce. Though the very live ambience of the space did not permit ideal crispness (and at allegro di molto it’s hard to imagine human string players truly achieving the sempre staccato the score specifies), the delicacy of the upper strings proved nonetheless evocative of a half-perceived magical realm. Though the 17-year-old Felix Mendelssohn had not yet envisioned the full Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music (completed 17 years later), the overture encompasses a number of salient aspects of the whole play. Hoskin and his team vividly traversed the dramatic gamut, including magical activities, the ecstasy of the young couples in the first flush of love, the bumptious “rude mechanicals” preparing their play within a play, and the hee-hawing of one of their group (Bottom) when he is temporarily transformed into an ass. Near the end, the silken strings in the coda possibly depicted tender reconciliation following the dispelling of deceptions, misunderstandings, and the like among the young lovers. The vibrant, colorful performance concluded as it began, with four gleaming woodwind chords.
Given that William Levi Dawson (1899-1990) devoted the majority of his time and effort to music education and choral conducting, it comes as no surprise that his output of compositions is not large, but the quality of his Negro Folk Symphony was recognized from the start, receiving its world premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. The first movement, “The Bond of Africa,” opened with a melancholy trombone solo providing the folk-like melodic germ from which many of the whole symphony’s themes were developed. Though there was an occasional whiff of blues, the overriding effect here was that of folk song. Much of the writing for all sections of the orchestra was challenging, and the players rose impressively to the challenge. The opening movement’s final peroration combined multiple themes as it grew to an electrifying ending. “Hope in the Night,” the second movement, paradoxically opened gravely with a deep gong stroke and a mournful melody that grew to a fortissimo full-orchestra iteration. Hoskin and the players, however, underlined the abrupt contrast that occurred when a playfully dancing new theme emerged, presumably the “hope” of the title. Thereafter, the two themes/moods contested. Several times Dawson utilized a chamber ensemble within the orchestra, with the Du Bois musicians playing movingly. Flute and English horn played an expressive duet as the second movement concluded somberly. The finale, “O, Le’ Me Shine, Shine Like a Morning Star!”, began with renewed hope in a soft string tremolo. The composer constructed this movement largely on melodic fragments often modulating in sequences and included few sustained melodies. Though the fast tempo and rapidly changing harmonies combined with the sanctuary’s live acoustics to occasionally undermine clarity, the performers’ infusion of breathless urgency proved more important. The big moments crackled with excitement and intensity, particularly the surprising, abrupt ending.
The program concluded, appropriately enough, with the musical story-telling of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s masterpiece Scheherazade. Based on selected tales from the “One Thousand Nights and a Night,” this four-movement symphonic suite is knit together by the violin solos depicting the rare narrative abilities of Scheherazade, the sultan’s wife who manages to put off her impending execution for 1,001 nights—and ultimately for good—by telling cliffhanger stories. Concertmaster Thomas Cooper embodied the sultana’s confidence as well as her ability to beguile, with his elegant and expressive playing. Rimsky-Korsakov displays his own talent for spinning tales, using music instead of words, but with more specificity than in the previously heard works. In the Sea and Sinbad’s Ship, the orchestra’s nearly continuous rocking rhythm evoked riding the sea’s swells. The movement also repeatedly showcases solo instruments in addition to the violin, including cello, horn, flute, oboe, and clarinet. These principals performed with color and finesse. The concluding lengthy diminuendo was elegantly executed. Without pause, The Story of the Kalendar Prince commenced with an elaboration of Scheherazade’s song, followed by the bassoon’s representation of the prince. Given the large number of tempo changes and quasi-cadenzas for bassoon and clarinet, Hoskin and the orchestra deserve credit for not merely holding the ensemble together, but also making seamless transitions feel organic. The one moment of fuzzy ensemble came at the beginning of the accelerando to the ending (though Hoskin’s conducting remained precise), but it quickly came back together, leading to a spine-tingling conclusion. Love music dominates the third movement, The Young Prince and Princess, and the massed strings warmly caressed the main theme with subtle rubato. The principal clarinet and flute played their arching roulades supply and gracefully. In the central section, the quiet percussion added special flavor. The finale, Festival in Baghdad; The Sea; Shipwreck; Conclusion, brought the dramatic high point of the suite: the sultan’s theme, previously heard in the first and second movements, opens the fourth movement in a more agitated form than before, followed by Scheherazade’s song in urgent double-stops. Much of the finale features a whirling triplet rhythm and is a test of an orchestra’s virtuosity; this one truly strutted. Highlights included the rapid but clear repeated brass notes, and, after the triplet 16ths became even more brilliant 32nd notes, one had to admire the continuing clarity of passagework whether played by the violin section or duetting piccolo and flute. The excitement never let up, climaxing in great waves driving the ship into a rock, an overwhelming moment capped by tam-tam and cymbal crash. Following the subdued aftermath of the shipwreck, Scheherazade’s final song united with a quiet version of the sultan’s theme in the low strings, suggesting the ruler has abolished his wife’s death sentence. A sequence of glistening woodwind chords recalled A Midsummer Night’s Dream before the sultana had the final word, her voice ascending into the ether. This delicious program made an auspicious beginning to the Du Bois Orchestra’s eighth season, continuing its useful tribute to W. E. B. Du Bois, Harvard University’s first African American PhD.
Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is Organist of First Parish Church of Weston as well as a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.
Ed. Note: Many consider Scheherazade as literature’s first feminist. She, and the female characters in her stories certainly outsmarted many of the men in the kingdom. Over more than 4,000 pages, Richard F. Burton’s unexpurgated version tells the tales in bawdy splendor, including the very obscene first tale which sets up the King’s murderous treatment of women.]