IN: Reviews

More Voices of Loss, Reckoning, and Hope


The second program of the Boston Symphony’s series offered a special challenge: three unfamiliar works by three Black composers. Margaret Bonds (1913-72) raised the curtain with Montgomery Variations, composed in 1963 and dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., to commemorate the burgeoning civil rights movement in that city. Three of the seven “freestyle variations based on the Negro spiritual theme ‘I want Jesus to walk with me’” added up to ten minutes of warmly harmonic and richly orchestrated D minor, with melody almost entirely pentatonic, almost Scottish in folksong flavor. The subtitles were evocative: “Decision” began Andante deciso with a bold fortissimo referring to Rosa Parks’s arrest on the bus; “Prayer Meeting,” with quiet string trills and tremolos, maintained a throbbing D pedal point throughout; “March” had a battle-hymn drumbeat.

Keyboardist Earl Howard, clarinetist Anthony McGill, and conductor Thomas Wilkins (Winslow Townson photo)

The evening’s centerpiece, a 25-minute concerto for clarinet and orchestra plus Kurzweil synthesizer, carried a political title. You Have the Right to Remain Silent (from 2007) referred to the traffic-stop arrest in Boston of the composer, Anthony Davis, apparently for driving-while-Black on his way to a concert engagement in the 1970s; members of the orchestra and electronics repeatedly issued the Miranda warning. Davis gave the four movements programmatic subtitles as well: “Interrogation”, “Loss”, “Incarceration”, and “Dance of the Other.” The soloist Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, also took up an E-flat contra-alto clarinet (approximately midway between B-flat bass and contrabass clarinets) for buzzy and growly notes as well as multiphonics in the second movement. McGill dazzled throughout, from the most expressive warmth to howling rage in the clearest upper register. A reduced orchestra gave able support (single winds, harp, percussion, but plenty of strings) but an unobtrusive electronic keyboard wizard, Earl Howard, who is not only blind but has an eloquent white beard also accompanied; for a moment I thought I was seeing Lou Harrison himself. The well-times electronic component modulated from harpsichord and bells in the first movement to rhythmically splintering wood blocks in the third. Tonality progressed distinctively from frank atonality and clustered, rambling strings at the beginning to a gradual emergence of chorale-like bitonality (even some Petrushka harmony) in the second movement and eventual street-stride D minor in the later movements. The rhythmic background, dominated by ostinati, became more and more complex as well, including discreet punctuation by tamtam and mallet percussion, with a thumping big-band sound in the second movement. Several passages of furious writing for strings in unison ensued, with cellos and basses having to set down their bows in order to negotiate a frantic pizzicato far beyond the beat. These friendly episodes contrasted with ruminative duos between the solo clarinet and the synthesizer. All of these added up to an absorbing contest in sound; if we were supposed to imagine a struggle of wills between citizen and police, I didn’t hear it that way, but rather as an energetic evening on the town that doesn’t remain silent.

William Dawson (1899-1990) is well known to every choral singer who remembers his series of anthems and arrangements of spirituals for the Tuskegee Institute Choir, which he directed for 25 years. He completed his Negro Folk Symphony in 1934 but made a revision 29 years later after visiting Africa; Leopold Stokowski, who had a well-deserved reputation for bringing little-known music to light in America, premiered both versions.

Dawson took to heart Dvořák’s advice that American symphonic composers should seek inspiration in Negro melodies as Dvořák himself had done. The easily recognizable motive from the second line of “Go down, Moses” becomes a cyclic motto in all three movements of Dawson’s melodically varied symphony, first in the form of a broad, resonant horn call. The first movement (“The Bond of Africa”) carries this forward in a rambling but soaring manner, with well-planned climaxes and abundant changes of key, making the tonal progress difficult to follow at first; one searches for contemporary influences on the harmony — Delius, Chadwick, maybe some Richard Strauss, even some Gershwin in those chromatically descending ninth chords — but even if it doesn’t seem fully successful, it represents a genuinely original symphonic voice. The audience began to applaud spontaneously after this movement, then quickly stopped, but the unruffled conductor Thomas turned around and said, “It’s okay, go ahead and clap,” which let loose a further storm of applause. The D minor second movement (“Hope in the Night”) often is supported by a marchlike plucked bass, a kind of ostinato rather like the slow movement of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony which otherwise Dawson’s resembles not in the slightest. The quiet ending with tremolo strings, a drumbeat, and chimes deeply moved this writer. The third movement (“O le’ me shine, shine like a morning star”) might seem to be in E-flat major at first, but it’s soon all over the place tonally, the furious strings led the way with plenty of solos for everybody. This is difficult music to parse harmonically, but orchestrally it is thoroughly bracing, and emotionally it is right on target.

It’s worth noting that Symphony Hall appeared only slightly more than half full, testifying to the familiar reluctance of Boston audiences to taste-test the unfamiliar. BSO management may not have got its money’s worth, but the orchestra and the audience themselves surely did. The players rose to the heights of energy and expressivity in these demanding new works. Thomas Wilkins bears the title of Germeshausen Youth and Family Concerts Conductor, but in this concert one saw him as an expert and fully mature professional who had complete control of the proceedings at every moment, with no excess theatricality; congratulations to him and to the orchestra for a thoroughly interesting concert which I would be happy to see recorded.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.


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

  1. Spot on review! Thursday night’s concert was another enjoyable one in this mini-festival. I think this is third concert I’ve heard Thomas Wilkins conduct, and he has impressed each time as a conductor of substance who is worthy, able, and musical. C’mon BSO – how about letting Thomas Wilkins conduct a regular subscription program where he can pick the music he wants to conduct, rather than only giving him opportunities to lead the orchestra in narrowly-defined, very limited corners of the repertory.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — March 10, 2023 at 4:43 pm

  2. I meant to add that the concerto, “You Have The Right To Remain Silent,” kind of lost me mid-way through. To my taste it felt a bit too one-note in execution. But there’s no mistaking the outstanding performance of Anthony McGill and the BSO. Still, having the orchestra chanting throughout the work was silly. Nevertheless, the overall concert was enjoyable. In fact, the performance of the Margaret Bond work that opened the program made me want to hear the entire work rather than just 3 of the 7 sections.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — March 10, 2023 at 4:52 pm

  3. No doubt the BSO is a world class orchestra and Thomas Wilkins is a very capable and engaging conductor. Poor attendance at recent performances is more than likely due to the BSO’s recent proclivity to showcase many new works from our 21st century composers. I realize this is an ongoing trend undertaken by all symphony orchestras. However, I feel we need to take it down a notch. Other than the standard ” chestnuts” there is an abundance of unexplored and underperformed great music from the 20th, 19th, and even 18th century as well. Music that might better serve the BSO and the patrons. Simply put, symphony orchestras including the BSO, need to “put cheeks in the seats” in order to survive. I agree that diversity is a good thing but consideration to offer more widely acceptable music is also very critical as to its survival.

    Comment by David Grahling — March 11, 2023 at 10:37 am

  4. I didn’t find the chanting during “You Have The Right To Remain Silent” silly any more that I find being stopped by armed police silly when “driving while Black.” It made a stronger impact during the later movement when they chant, “Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law.” Powerful!

    Comment by Jim Doherty — March 11, 2023 at 10:49 am

  5. There is no shortage of works from previous centuries being played by the Boston Symphony. True, unexplored compositions from previous centuries get short shrift, but those works are just as likely to result in empty seats as contemporary works.

    Comment by James M. — March 11, 2023 at 12:11 pm

  6. As usual, an erudite summary from Professor DeVoto. Nice Lou Harrison reference…

    Comment by Bill Blake — March 11, 2023 at 12:14 pm

  7. Regarding empty seats at the BSO for new works, consider how the Metropolitan Opera has lately had better success filling the house for new operas than for same old…

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 11, 2023 at 12:21 pm

  8. I actually prefer listening to new and/or unfamiliar works to warhorses that I have heard many times. However, this program did not appeal to me and I decided to skip it. I don’t like hearing fragments of musical compositions. If the Boston Symphony felt that the Margaret Bonds piece was worth hearing, it should have played all 7 variations, not just three. In regard to the Dawson symphony, the Boston Symphony was late to the party. The Boston Landmarks Orchestra performed it on August 24, 2022. The Du Bois Orchestra performed it on October 8. 2022.This is the third time it has been programmed in the Boston area in less than 7 months. I enjoyed hearing it last summer, but I wasn’t eager to hear it again so soon.

    Comment by Bennett — March 11, 2023 at 2:29 pm

  9. Relative to the above Lee Eiseman comment I have no doubt the Met is having more success with their new operas and it’s admirable that they are experiencing that success. Drawing such a comparison to what’s happening at Symphony Hall here in Boston is a bit of a stretch. NYC is a phenomenal cultural center for opera and no doubt appeals to a much wider audience. Boston does not. “Apples and Oranges”.

    Comment by David Grahling — March 11, 2023 at 3:07 pm

  10. I expect Mr. Grahling will be in for some serious Boston Pride here soon. Pro tip: Don’t wear your Yankees cap in public in these parts.

    Comment by Menino's Ghost — March 13, 2023 at 8:59 am

  11. My deepest apologies. I certainly did not intend to offend or demean the Boston Lyric Opera or its loyal and faithful followers. The Boston Lyric Opera is no doubt a reputable and noteworthy institution but is certainly not nearly at the same level as the Met or for that matter the New York City opera. BTW , how did you know I was a New Yorker?

    Comment by David Grahling — March 13, 2023 at 11:37 am

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