New World’s “Harlem Renaissance” festival opens in light and lively fashion

By Lawrence Budmen

William Eddins conducted the New World Symphony in the opening program of the Harlem Renaissance Festival. Photo: Gregory Reed

A year ago the New World Symphony’s first “Harlem Renaissance” festival featured an orchestral program concentrated on major symphonic works by William Grant Still and William Dawson and a famous jazz-classical fusion score by Duke Ellington. 

This year’s iteration is devoted to the “Harlem Renaissance in Europe” and consists, in large part, of music in the jazz and popular idioms that introduced African-American performers and composers to European audiences in the early decades of the twentieth century. 

Dubbed “Symphonic Persuasion,” the major orchestral program, heard on Sunday afternoon at the New World Center, amounted to a glorified pops concert, albeit a sophisticated one, artfully performed.

William Eddins, a charter New World alum, was the program’s exuberant conductor. During the orchestral academy’s first mini- season in the winter and spring of 1988, Eddins was the group’s first keyboard player. On Sunday, he drew robust playing from the ensemble and made the best case for all of the orchestral pieces on the menu.

No less than three overtures were presented, and the curtain raiser to Treemonisha by Scott Joplin was clearly the winner of this group. Joplin’s combination of ragtime and sentimental parlor ballads was irresistible, led with flair by Eddins. The arrangement by T.J. Anderson was considerably more imaginative than the sparer orchestration by Gunther Schuller that has been utilized in productions of the opera.

British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s trilogy of cantatas Song of Hiawatha (after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic saga) were a staple of London’s annual Proms concerts in the 1920’s and 30’s. The elaborate overture opens with shimmering strings over harp glissandos and the main themes presage Hollywood wide-screen epics by decades. This richly orchestrated piece was given appropriate sweep by Eddins and the players reveled in the sumptuous instrumental writing.

The Overture to In Dahomey by Will Marion Cook opened a 1903 musical that featured legendary black vaudevillians Bert Williams and George Walker. Replete with toe-tapping tunes, the orchestration by James Lamb offers a large brass and percussion battery a chance to shine. Amanda Aldridge’s Lazy Dance was a lilting vignette that spotlighted the strings.

Harlem Symphony by stride pianist James P. Johnson, which concluded the concert, is hardly a symphony in the traditional sense. Johnson created a melodious orchestral suite of instrumental portraits. A bustling “Subway Journey” is followed by a blues-infused “Song of Harlem,” marked by glossy wind writing. 

Johnson was most famous for “The Charleston” from his musical Running Wild and the third section of his score “The Nightclub” is in that tradition. Eddins channeled the players into sounding like an authentic swing dance band. A serious of variations on a hymn theme characterizes  “Baptist Mission.” Both solemn and uplifting, the motif transforms into jazzy abandon with a muted trumpet solo and full Wagnerian coda for maximum impact. The NWS fellows gave this 1932 curio an enthusiastic, full-throttle rendition.

Between the orchestral works, soprano Louise Toppin (singing from the satellite stage above the orchestra) sang a tremulous version of the folk lullaby “Gué Gué Solingaie” and a fervent “Ride on King Jesus” in an elaborate art song arrangement by Robert Nathaniel Dett. Wesley Ducote excelled in the showy piano accompaniment. Joining the orchestra on stage, Toppin did her best to make Harry T. Burleigh’s stolid “The Grey Wolf” more interesting than it is.

Black-American influences on European music was represented by the second movement “Blues: Moderato” from Violin Sonata No. 2 by Ravel.  NWS fellow Ayrton Pisco made the violin’s portamentos aptly bluesy while maintaining precision. Noah Sonderling captured the pianistic mix of classicism and stride perfectly.

Having explored the Harlem Renaissance, the New World should next look forward to the later 20th- and early 21st centuries for these February programs. The neglected neo-classical works of Ulysses Kay deserve exploration and the splashy orchestral canvasses of Adolphus Hailstork (who can give Respighi a run for the money) should be heard as well.

The New World Symphony presents “Black Renaissance Pianism Across the Pond” featuring pianists Samantha Ege, William Eddins, Wesley Ducote and Noah Sonderling playing works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Harry T. Burleigh, Robert Nathaniel Dett, Nora Holt and Amanda Aldridge  7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the New World Center Truist Paviliion.

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Mon Feb 6, 2023
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