New World serves up exuberant tribute to Harlem Renaissance

By Lawrence Budmen

Thomas Wilkins conducted the New World Symphony Saturday night in Miami Beach.

During the 1920’s and early 30’s, New York’s Harlem was a bustling venue of creativity in the arts. The Harlem Renaissance encompassed drama, dance, poetry, fiction writing and classical and popular music. Many of that era’s best creative voices continued to enrich the musical literature in the decades that followed. 

Concluding a weeklong celebration of this moment in African American cultural history, the New World Symphony presented “Victory Stride: The Orchestral Legacy of the Harlem Renaissance” Saturday night at the New World Center in Miami Beach. Sadly, artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas was to make his first NWS appearance of the season but that didn’t happen.

“O Le’ Me Shine, Shine Like a Morning Star,” the concluding movement of William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony was the program’s exuberant opener. A respected pedagogue, Dawson is best known today as an arranger of spirituals. His symphony was premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1934 by legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski. Based on the melodies of two spirituals, Dawson’s score resembles an overture in its brassy high spirits.

Thomas Wilkins, principal guest conductor of the Virginia Symphony and director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, was the evening’s enthusiastic leader. He drew lively and vigorous playing from the full ensemble and the five percussionists were kept busy in Dawson’s rouser. Even the triangle part was transparent and clearly audible with Wilkins’ expert balancing.

The Symphony No. 4 (Autochthonous) by William Grant Still (1895-1978) was the concert’s most substantial offering. Still’s career traversed the concert hall, opera house, jazz bands, Broadway and Hollywood. His 1947 symphony’s subtitle means “born to earth.” Like Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3, the score was conceived during the optimism era that swept the country following World War II. The composer said he wanted the symphony “to represent the spirit of the American people.” It is a transitional work, falling between his early jazz-inflected creations and later more austere pieces.

The opening movement has the bristling energy of William Schuman’s symphonies but with a different accent. An initial motif keeps recurring in various permutations throughout the symphony’s four movement, twenty-five minute span. 

A dirge like slow movement resounds almost like a spiritual. Still’s rich orchestration astutely adds figurations from harp and celesta to thematic lines in winds and strings. The third movement, marked “With a graceful lilt,” is pure Americana. Its high-stepping dance melody had lift and lilt aplenty in Wilkins’ and the players’ enthusiastic rendition. A hymn like theme dominates the finale with a brief jazzy central episode. 

Wilkins shaped the dark string textures with expressive force and eloquently built the score’s sonorous culmination to a final cymbal smash. The brilliance and rhythmic flexibility of the string playing was especially striking. Still’s creation is a fine example of the literature of American symphonies of the 1940’s and 50’s by such composers as Schuman, Roy Harris, Walter Piston and David Diamond, all of which should be performed more frequently.

Still’s Patterns for Orchestra opened the program’s second half. A message on the hall’s screens thanked conducting fellow Chad Goodman for taking over direction of the score from Michael Tilson Thomas who “is unable to be with us.” The New World Symphony’s artistic director underwent surgery for a brain tumor this summer, returned to conducting in November and was scheduled to conduct the Still work and several programs this month. His nonappearance inevitably raises question about the current state of his health, and his scheduled concerts in coming weeks and the remainder of the season.

Still’s Patterns is a mature work. The composer studied with avant gardist Edgard Varese and the five-movement 1960 score opens with spiky, astringent wind figures that reflect the modernist influence. Spare lyricism drives “A Lone Teardrop” and dissonant harp and wind fragments paint “Rain Pearls.” “Tranquil Cave” suggests Still’s film scoring with lush string writing. The jagged rhythms and short fragments of melody in “Moon Gold” channel Stravinsky in neo-classical mode. Still’s fifteen-minute suite is a gem of transparent instrumental timbres and impressionism with a more acerbic bent. Goodman’s direction was precise and clear, the playing well articulated.

Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor was the first work by a black female composer to be played by a major American orchestra when it was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Frederick Stock in 1933. In recent years, Price’s music has been rediscovered, played and recorded. 

Her music reflects a distinctive creative voice and aesthetic. The symphony’s third movement “Juba Dance,” led by Wilkins, pulsates with one of  those jaunty tunes that remain in the mind’s ear after the performance has concluded. The instrumentation includes African drums and a wind whistle. Wilkins captured the music’s folk influences and expertly coordinated the ensemble’s raucous exclamations.

After giving the downbeat for Victory Stride by James Price Johnson, Wilkins took a seat and let the orchestra jam in big-band fashion with trap drums setting the pace. Solos by trumpet, trombone and stride piano added authenticity to the ramble.

The musical term crossover did not exist in 1950 when jazz great Duke Ellington wrote his orchestral portrait Harlem. Still, this fifteen-minute rhapsody may have been the first example of that genre. With five saxophones in high drive and spectacular brass writing, the orchestra sounds, at times, like an authentic jazz band. A moody clarinet solo mixes blues with a classical frame. Thanks to Ellington’s genius, the work is replete with great tunes. As arranged by Luther Henderson and Maurice Peress, the music concludes with four percussionists riffing and a full throttle volley. Wilkins delivered the sonic thrills in stellar form.

Many in the large, attentive and diverse audience clearly were new concertgoers, applauding between movements of the two Still works. Their enthusiasm, however, proved that classical music can indeed speak to a wider public. Hopefully the New World Symphony will continue to program more repertoire  by black composers as part of a wider exploration of American symphonic repertoire.

Michael Tilson Thomas is next scheduled to conduct the New World Symphony in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) and Berg’s Violin Concerto with soloist Christian Tetzlaff; Chad Goodman conducts Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s Hiawatha Overture. Concerts are 7:30 p.m. February 11 and. February 12 at the New World Center in Miami Beach.

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Sun Feb 6, 2022
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