This week the BSO made history with a knock-your-socks-off world premiere of American composer Carlos Simon’s innovative Four Black Dances. Subscribers also heard Ernest Bloch’s early 20th-century musical narrative about King Solomon, Schelomo: Rhapsodie Hébraïque with the inspirational young cellist, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and a rich take on Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
Washington-born and Atlanta-raised Simon warmly addressed the audience, noting the background for each dance, and his hope to convey disparate Black experiences with the depth and emotion of each. This stirring commission by the BSO, Music Director Andris Nelsons and the New Works Fund of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, focuses the centrality of dance as an expression of connection, ritual, celebration, and worship in Black culture. Certainly, this 14-minute work will have staying power, if it were just for the imaginative instrumentation, which includes a percussionist instrument list that takes lines to list (xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, tubular bells, piatti, suspended and splash cymbals, tam-tam, tambourines, triangle, wood blocks, shaker, large ship, large wood stick on wooden floorboard, toms, two snare drums, bass drum and hand claps).
The first dance, Ring Shout, marked “Soulfully” at the start, quickly imparts the sense of the ecstatic circle dance that first arose among enslaved Africans in the West Indies and the United States. In it, Simon envelops the listener with the transcendent celebratory religious ritual with foot stomping, clapping and shouting— through a percussionist’s large stick on a floorboard, right from the first measure (and intermittently throughout) and rapid woodwind and string passages, as well as handclaps and ethereal contributions of the harp and occasional brass growls. Improvisational moments transport the audience, overtaking with a pulsating liveliness. The second dance, Waltz, marked “with ebb and flow, rubato,” initially, depicts the 1930s arrival debutante balls in Black “upper-class” social circles, previously excluded in segregated America. This morsel with its tangy phrasing might be taken as commentary that these balls were a bittersweet reminder of the difficult paths for all Black families.
Tap! ― the third movement—is jubilant. Exuberant pulsations from the sound of tapping on the side rim of the snare drum alternating with jazz harmonies in the strings and brass in short choppy phrasing along with wood blocks, whip, piccolo and pizzicato. It evokes great tap dancers—the composer mentioned Cab Calloway in his introductory chat—and ended way too soon. The final movement, Holy Dance, emanates from Simon’s Pentacostal upbringing as the son of a pastor. As Simon writes in the Program Notes, “this movement calls on the vibrant, celebratory character… and “mimics the sound of the congregation ‘speaking in tongues,’ or murmuring in an unknown spiritual language” through semi-improvisation (aleatoric) moments. Holy Dance, marked “mysteriously” at its pianissimo beginning, encompasses the full range of sound and wonder, ending in fortissimo. I can’t wait to hear it again!
The ascendant cellist Kanneh-Mason then entranced the audience with his interpretation of Bloch’s 1915-1916 Schelomo, in which the composer casts the cello as King Solomon, depicting texts from Ecclesiastes, in this pessimistic, intense, yet spellbinding work. Schelomo starts and ends with a low note, and overall, underscores the multifaceted challenges faced. Kanneh-Mason seemed entranced; he dug into the score with intensity and in turn, entranced the hall. His dynamic range, deep tone and expressive demeanor roused the hall. In response, the cellist played his own interpretation of the Welsh song, “Myfanwy,” which he has arranged (and recorded) for solo cello.
The choice of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Opus 92, in A major as the closer seems a nod to Simon, whose grandmother fostered his budding childhood interest in classical music through the gift of a CD that included the Seventh’s Allegretto. The audience did not decamp at intermission and was rewarded by a nuanced and broad rendering of this iconic work, a staple of the BSO since its first performance here in 1882. The first movement’s Poco sostenuto introduction led well to the expected rollicking Vivace, with the orchestra looking engaged and happy. The stately and downcast second movement Allegretto provided intensity, and the third, Presto—Assai meno presto, built momento followed. In the final Allegro con brio, the violins and horns made much of an ecstatic opportunity.
The evening brought a hat trick of standing ovations, signifying that the BSO is succeeding in its appeal to young, more diverse audiences by introducing new works and featuring important young composers and artists and pairing these meaningfully with older works. Bravo, BSO!