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.
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.