BSO serves up a lively program spotlighting neglected African-American composers

March 24, 2019 at 1:15 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

James Carter performed Roberto Sierra's Concert for Saxophones with Thomas Wilkins conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra Saturday night. Photo: Winslow Townson

James Carter performed Roberto Sierra’s Concerto for Saxophones with Thomas Wilkins conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra Saturday night. Photo: Winslow Townson

Adolphus Hailstork, Roberto Sierra, Florence Price, Duke Ellington. Even during the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Golden Age in the 1930s and ‘40s, when the ensemble was the undisputed champion of American symphonic music, you wouldn’t have dreamt of a BSO concert comprising music by three African-Americans and a Puerto Rican native.

But on Saturday at Symphony Hall, there they were, belatedly,  as the focus of a lively, one-night-only program led by Thomas Wilkins, the BSO’s Family and Youth Concerts conductor making his belated subscription series debut.

Hailstork’s 1984 An American Port of Call got the evening off to a brash start. A tribute to the port city of Norfolk, Virginia, it opens with a series of syncopated blasts that alternate with lush, swelling string phrases. The energy level hardly ever lets up – motoric rhythms and ostinato patterns underlie much of Hailstork’s writing – and the score is further marked by striking instrumental colors and combinations, as well as allusions to the blues.

Saturday’s concert—which marked the BSO’s first performance of any music by Hailstork—was robust, energetically highlighting the music’s vibrant gestures while allowing its handful of lyrical scenes room to breathe.

Sierra’s 2002 Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra proved equally bracing. The piece knows no stylistic boundaries, gaily shifting between jazz, the Blues, Latin dances, European song forms, even Chuck Berry-esque rock-n-roll.

Nothing is held back in the solo writing, either. The first of the four movements commences with a wild display of virtuosic noodling on tenor saxophone. Orchestral instruments interject their own figures in a woozy counterpoint. Ultimately, an improvised cadenza leads to a thundering, Samba-infused coda.

In the second movement, a lovely waltz forms the basis for a series of increasingly complex soprano saxophone ornamentations above and around it. The third returns to the conversational world of the first movement, the soloist (here alternating both saxes) and orchestra echoing one another. A last improvised cadenza leads directly into the finale, full of high spirits and driving R&B riffs.

Sierra tailor-made the piece for James Carter, the charismatic jazz saxophonist whose unimpeachable technique and expressive fearlessness make for a commanding stage presence. On Saturday, Carter played  the concerto’s propulsive, extroverted bits as captivatingly as its subdued moments. His three cadenzas were simply staggering: a mix of extended techniques (slap tones, tongue clicks, multiphonics) and dynamic extremes that subtly incorporated the works’ principal themes.

Called back three times, Carter gave a soulful trope on “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as an encore.

Wilkins led the BSO in a solid accompaniment, highlighted by the percussion section’s exuberant contributions in the outer movements and some delicate string playing in the second.

After intermission came Price’s Symphonic Reflections and Ellington’s A Tone Parallel to Harlem.

The former is Wilkins’ rearrangement of three movements from Price’s neo-Dvořákian Symphony no. 3, which cuts the first movement and reorders the final three.

It’s an open question what, if anything, this adaptation adds to Price’s original, but Saturday’s performance—which also marked the first appearance of Price on a BSO program—suggested that she’d make a welcome addition to the orchestra’s repertoire.

Rhythms in the opening “Juba” dance were tight while the lyrical, central Andante sang warmly. The stormy finale packed plenty of energy but, like the first movement, suffered from some amorphous textures, due to balancing problems.

That same problem occasionally dogged the Ellington, a 1951 homage to the composer’s adopted hometown: at a couple of points, one couldn’t hear anything the BSO strings were playing, so thoroughly were they covered. Structurally, too, Harlem is a bit opaque. 

But, oh, the sounds Wilkins drew from the BSO on Saturday. Saxes swooned, brasses were perfectly blended. All the dancing episodes frisked. And the percussion break just before the end roared.

What wasn’t there to love? In a word, nothing.

Gustavo Dudamel leads the BSO  in music of Schumann and Stravinsky April 5-9 at Symphony Hall.; 888-266-1200

Posted in Performances

One Response to “BSO serves up a lively program spotlighting neglected African-American composers”

  1. Posted Mar 24, 2019 at 1:32 pm by jim

    I listened to the radio broadcast and I have to say I wish I had been there to experience the Sierra piece in person. It’s great that the BSO set aside this one night for this one concert, but now I’d like to see them do the hard, but more meaningful, work of integrating such works and composers onto programs with the more standard repertoire. It might take some imagination and effort, but it would be worth it.

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