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André Raphel Leads BSO in Reckoning and Hope


Last Friday the Boston Symphony Orchestra embarked on its three-week ‘Festival: Voices of Loss, Reckoning, and Hope,’ “exploring themes of cultural belonging and social justice.” The first performance, conducted by André Raphel, featured two large-scale works, one composed by and the other inspired by African Americans of extraordinary talent who have not received the same measure of acclaim as their Caucasian peers.

William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1, Afro-American, his best-known work, premiered under Howard Hanson with the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931, though it arguably didn’t fully enter mainstream orchestral programming until this century, being considered for many years more suitable for pops. Though the Boston Pops had played selected movements of the symphony over the years, these were its first complete performances by the BSO.

Still (1895-1978) benefited from a diverse group of teachers and collaborators—ranging from George Whitefield Chadwick to French avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse to the great bluesman W.C. Handy—and synthesized these influences into an attractive and distinctive style. The four movements of his first symphony (each given a descriptive subtitle) feature classical structure and theme development while their harmonic idiom clearly emphasizes the blues. An expressive English horn solo began the first movement (subtitled Longing), a Native American-tinged melody that Dvořák would have appreciated, before giving way to a bluesy theme from a muted trumpet over horn chords. The musicians’ played up the jazz style, and we heard handsome solos from clarinet, oboe, harp, trumpet, and vibraphone. The second movement Adagio was particularly moving, reflecting its epigraph which speaks wearily of how sweet it would be to die. André Raphel elicited both melancholy and solace in the lovely, aching string introduction and the warm playing of the woodwinds and viola section as each group took the melody. The Animato third movement (Humor) was a bustling scherzo of high spirits and infectious rhythm (the epigraph refers to shouting hallelujahs) with blue notes scattered liberally throughout. One could also savor the contribution here of the most unorthodox member of Still’s orchestra, the tenor banjo. The final movement (Sincerity), whose epigraph begins “Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul”, came closer than the others to evoking a spiritual, and its comparatively little rubato seemed to indicate the determination to overcome obstacles. Especially notable for me were a reminiscence of the first movement in the context of the fourth, an expressive, wide-ranging tune in the cellos, and an unexpected miniature scherzo that ultimately broadened into the full-orchestra peroration and a powerful ending.

The other work took its inspiration from the remarkable life of Octavius Catto (1839-1871), a free Black man from Philadelphia who made his mark as educator, athlete, and activist against slavery and for the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Philadelphia Orchestra premiered The Passion of Octavius Catto, by Uri Caine, in 2014. The composer also performed as a member of the Uri Caine Trio (also including Mike Boone, electric bass, and Clarence Penn, drums) in conjunction with the BSO, as well as Barbara Walker, vocalist, and the Catto Chorus whose members were drawn from no fewer than 21 local choruses

Like Still, composer and performer Uri Caine (b. 1956) gained knowledge from an array of sources, though also, in his case, from the experience of being a performer in a plethora of styles from a young age. He was already well on his way to being a musical polyglot by the time he formally studied composition with George Rochberg whose philosophy of “polystylism” (though within classical music) meshed well with Caine’s still broader approach. The title “The Passion of . . .” is a nod to the genre best known through the works of J.S. Bach, Georg Telemann, and other Baroque composers, and Caine’s work does share a number of attributes with theirs, most notably the use of “tunes” familiar to an audience of laypeople (hymntunes in the Baroque examples versus popular 19th-century and later tunes of various types in the latter piece) as well as the reaction of the solo singer to the chorus and vice versa. The composer compiled the libretto, drawing on text from Catto’s speeches, as well as original text by Caine and Walker. The concluding section makes use of the eulogy for Catto by his friend, the minister Benjamin Tucker Tanner

The tense, agitated instrumental introduction gives way quickly to a summons from the chorus and vocalist Barbara Walker, coaxing us to “come hear the story of Catto!”. The second section, purely instrumental with percussive, accented figures and dissonance in both piano and orchestra, evokes the agitated movements of Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphonie, a virtuoso piano (and ondes Martenot) concerto in all but name. The absence of diatonic and anodyne melody here seems to signify that the Civil War may be over, but racial strife remains even in the northern state of Pennsylvania.

We Know No East No West, returned us to gospel style as Walker asked, “Is it not our duty to ask in the name of justice . . . whose bones lie on the battlefield?” This developed into a compelling call and response between soloist and choir, accompanied by the jazz trio. The fourth movement, The Streetcar Protests in Philadelphia, packed a dramatic punch beginning with the anger  of a schoolteacher (Catto’s fiancée Caroline Le Count, an activist in her own right) not allowed to ride a streetcar, with a litany of “can’t ride” in the chorus. The orchestra then vividly depicted the teacher’s hurting feet, aching head, and mounting frustration at the denial of access to the streetcar—as well as “your ballot box, your juries, your churches, your theaters”. After Walker’s plaintive question “Why do you deny my dignity?”, her mood turned to unexpected triumph as the city acknowledges that segregation is illegal: “Yes! I can ride in Philadelphia” (with the choral litany changed to “can ride”).

Another orchestral interlude, Baseball Star of 1867, deals with Catto’s athletic feats, again resembling a frenetic contemporary piano concerto but slyly working in the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as Caine impressively displayed his technique as both composer and executant. This led straight into There Must Come a Change, “a funky gospel treatment” of a Catto speech expounding principles of education and non-violence (“Agitate! Educate! Vindicate! . . . A mind is a terrible thing to waste”) and anticipating themes later famously cherished by Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr. Walker, the Catto Chorus, and the Uri Caine Trio made a fervent plea. This continued without pause into The Amendments, quoting the 13th (abolishing slavery), 14th (due process), and 15th Amendments (the right to vote expanded to all men, regardless of race). Walker both spoke and sang these famous words, echoed by the swaying and clapping chorus, with emphatic, joyous accompaniment by the trio.

In Murder (October 10, 1871), both the BSO and the trio illustrated disturbed crowds of people on Election Day, whose intimidation tactics and rioting culminate in the shooting of Catto—four shots on a starter’s pistol that were rather too subtle, considering the advance warnings of “loud noise” posted throughout the hall, though the subsequent police whistle made clear what had happened. The chaos gradually subsided into a dignified funeral procession with the solo trumpet playing “We Shall Overcome” and serving as a transition into Caroline Le Count’s Lament. As in the fourth movement, Walker was at her most moving when portraying Catto’s fiancée, allowing her voice to crack as she expresses how she misses him and wonders, “Why oh why does it hurt so much?” Caine here supplies the most genuinely tender music in the score.

Accompanied by the trio, the final section sets minister Benjamin Tucker Tanner’s eulogy for his slain friend. Walker, determinedly declares “The Martyr rests and we a million strong!”. Appropriately enough, she is joined by the orchestra and chorus at “backed by a million more!” Interestingly, Caine opts not for the expected triumphant ending but transitions into a serene and quiet one, with Walker and the Catto Chorus humming pensively, perhaps showing faith that one day America will know true equality and serenity.

Pianist & composer Uri Caine, vocalist Barbara Walker, bassist Mike Boone, and conductor André Raphel (Hilary Scott photo)

It was a measure of André Raphel’s skill at coordinating the numerous and unusual performing bodies throughout the work that this listener, immersed in the fascinating drama and cogent music, tended to forget about him because everything came together so naturally and seamlessly. Kudos as well to the Catto Chorus, prepared by James Burton and coached by David Coleman, whose vibrant, expressive contribution made it hard to believe that it was a “pick-up” ensemble. Finally, it was heartwarming to see a substantial number of the audience stay after the performance to attend a question-and-answer session moderated by Robert Kirzinger, annotator for the BSO, featuring Raphel and Caine answering his questions and those of audience members, supplementing the already generous notes by Matthew Mendez in the program booklet. All the above bodes well for continued high standards through the rest of this three-week festival. Performing the music of composers from populations historically underrepresented in concerts of Western European orchestral music is a valuable service to the community, and I must commend the BSO for undertaking it and achieving such fine results in this program.

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.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Kudos to the BSO for this engaging concert and mini-festival!!

    We enjoyed Sunday afternoon’s concert and have tickets to see all 3 in the mini-festival. I would say that the first half of Sunday’s concert came across better than the second half. The Uri Caine work, The Passion of Octavius Catto, was worth hearing – once. Unfortunately I think it suffered from miscasting and maybe I would have liked the work better if there had been a different vocalist. I have no doubt Barbara Walker was impressive in her prime. But she’s well beyond it now and it diminished the overall performance. Oh well…

    I can’t speak to the talents of Andre Raphel because I would need to hear him again. But I have no doubt as to the talents of Thomas Wilkins and Charles Floyd. And to me, the real sign of progress with the BSO will be the day when the BSO engages them not to conduct youth concerts or gospel night, but on a regular subscription program where they conduct Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, or whatever they want to conduct, rather than being limited to the usual corners of the repertory they are tasked with.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — March 6, 2023 at 3:22 pm

  2. Reminds me of 1934-1945 German concert hall programming. Pfitzner’s Kracow Greeting, then maybe a turgid pompous symphony of ” Pepping” or ” Schubert” ( and I don’t mean Franz!) , and for dessert Werner Egk’s government-funded ( sound familiar ?) politically correct ” updating” of Grieg’s Peer Gynt.

    Comment by G. M . — March 6, 2023 at 4:09 pm

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