The first big night of The Colour of Music, the “Black Classical Musicians Festival,” filled Memminger Auditorium with an abundance of smiles, hugs and ovations.
Newly elected state Sen. Marlon Kimpson introduced the program with obvious enthusiasm and a welcoming drawl, pointed out 91-year-old composer George Walker, the first African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for music and the author of the first piece of the evening. The ovation for Walker set the tone for the evening to come.
The concert opened with Walker’s “Icarus in Orbit” from 2004. The orchestra struck a startling and staccato first chord followed by a few seconds of silence. Then crept in with a pensive and reserved horn section which was soon joined by the strings setting up an ascending two-note motif that gradually developed into a more dense and rich texture. As contrast and dissonance built, the piece became more complex rhythmically, with jarring horn blasts and fast runs in the strings.
After a few short, eerie breaths, the composition became more harmonically complex and rhythmic as it reached its apex, then descended with a solo flute flurry followed by three sharp chords harkening back to the beginning.
The performance continued with “Poem” by William Grant Still, written 60 years before Walker’s “Icarus.” It began with huge parallel melodies in the brass, engaging in a call-and-response with the woodwinds and strings. The orchestra then settled into a low sonorous, pastoral feel.
Conductor Marlon Daniel wonderfully led the musicians through the intense dynamics of turbulent mountain tops and peaceful valleys. The brass, anchored by three trombones and a tuba, offered as rich a tone at their lowest volumes as at their most triumphant.
As Daniel became more animated with his baton, certain members of the orchestra began to follow suit.
Principal oboist Hassan Anderson seemed especially moved. Perhaps because Still was an oboist, he wrote a particularly lively oboe part, but something more than that seemed to be taking place. The players, while concentrated on their conductor, also interacted with one another. Violinist were smiling at each other or nodding across to the violas. Bassists were reacting to all the music, not just the dots written on their particular pages.
The first half of the evening’s performance concluded with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade in A Minor, a spirited piece, also relying heavily on a powerful brass section. Commissioned in 1898 by the Three Choirs Festival of Britain, largely due to the urging of fellow composer, Edward Elgar, Ballade was the most traditional sounding of the first three. With beautiful lyrical string passages interposed with elated brass and woodwinds.
The well planned programming of the first half traced over a hundred years of composition, starting with the most modern harmonies in the first and shortest piece to the most traditional and accessible music of the final and longest composition. Both the orchestra and conductor seamlessly interpreted the broad range of musical styles giving a striking cohesiveness to over a century of music.
As people settled back into their seats, Lee Pringle, founder of the Colour of Music Festival, pointed out how we should all take a moment to reflect on changes in the community that lead from slavery to musical celebration. He also noted that black composers and musicians have long been active in classical music and deserved better recognition.
The stage filled with the orchestra, festival chorale, conductor and four soloist, bringing the number of performers to nearly 90 for the final composition, “The Ordering of Moses,” by R. Nathaniel Dett.
Composed in 1937, Dett’s oratorio mixes African-American spirituals with classical music and operatic singing. Lasting close to an hour, this ambitious work never had a dull moment. Each of the soloist expertly represented their characters: Daniel Washington, as The Word, filled the hall with his resonant bass-baritone; Nicole Mitchell, as the Voice of Israel, showed an enormous range, especially in the lower register, with wonderfully controlled vibrato; tenor Robert Mack was Moses and sang with a clear and powerful voice; and soprano Roberta Laws was Miriam, soaring beautifully.
The chorus provided the perfect support, either grounding the soloists or cajoling them to new heights. The orchestra showed great restraint and skill at accompanying the singers. Notable were principal cellist Kenneth Law and principal bassoonist Feleighta Green, who played with great expression in the transitions between the seven sections of the piece.
The concert concluded with a rousing ovation, manifest sense of pride and joyful camaraderie. The Colour of Music Festival is the start of something very important and special in Charleston.
Reviewer Jonathan Gray is a musician, teacher and writer.