At ‘Hope in the Night’, PostClassical Ensemble gives black composer William Levi Dawson an expected spotlight
But Friday’s program also served as an evening prep session on composer William Levi Dawson (1899-1990). A skilled arranger of spirituals and longtime conductor of the Tuskegee Institute Choir, Dawson was also an exquisitely talented composer whose voice fills a remarkable silence in the history of modern American music. (On that note, PostClassical executive producer Joseph Horowitz recently penned an illuminating study of these divergent traditions in “Dvorak’s Prophecy.”)
In addition to a spotlight on Dawson, the evening also featured an appearance and conversation with another towering figure in classical music, no subset required: George Shirley, the first black tenor to take the stage at the Metropolitan. Opera. A recording of his 1961 debut as Ferrando in Mozart’s ‘Così fan tutte’ greeted the audience as we took our seats.
Before the concert, Shirley, 87, talked about growing up in a home more steeped in the Grand Ole Opry than opera, learning music in Detroit public schools, becoming the first black man to join the choir of the United States Army and to honor the mentors and teachers who led him to the most prestigious stages in the world. (Shirley also wrote the foreword to Horowitz’s book.)
“That’s how it works,” he said. “Doors that have been closed are always opened by someone inside who realizes that the person outside belongs inside.”
After the lecture, Shirley joined a loud (and audibly popular) Ellington School chorus – conducted with finesse and careful attention by Monique Spells – through the deftly tinged arrangement of “There’s Balm in Gilead ” from Dawson, who gave the spiritual a new glow. Shirley still has a voice that hits the back of the room, its fine gravel traces like the fluted edge of a medal.
From there, PCE musical director Angel Gil-Ordóñez and his 58-piece cast immersed themselves in Dawson: the world premiere of the composer’s “Negro Work Song,” as well as the DC premiere of his unsung 1934 landmark. , “Negro Folk Symphony”.
From start to finish, PostClassical proved to be an orchestra in fighting form, with compelling storytellers in its ranks. Notably Gil-Ordóñez, who gave the “Work Song” a living, breathing vitality, with the weight and permanence of a monument you regularly pass but barely notice. With his solitary opening trumpet he gathers and wins; a cello roars and the orchestra responds. eight or more the minutes that follow – their harmonic surprises and melodic memories, their soaring strings and sagging horns – had time capsule magic in their unfolding.
The Philadelphia Orchestra premiered “Negro Folk Symphony” in 1934. (It was adored by Leopold Stokowski.) Significantly, a performance was also broadcast on CBS radio, reaching ears far beyond the walls of the concert hall. A New York Times review of the premiere noted a stubbornly upright audience “remaining to applaud long and vigorously, and to call Mr. Dawson back to the stage several times”.
After Friday’s performance, it’s easy to see why. The “Folk Symphony”, divided into three movements, weaves samples of folk music into a vibrant tapestry of vernacular languages. Spirituals such as “Oh M’ Lit’l Soul Gwine-A-Shine” and “Hallelujah, Lord, I Been Down Into the Sea” emerge, reconfigure and reinvent themselves as the work develops.
Its haunting second movement, from which the program takes its title, is one of the most emotionally powerful pieces of music I’ve heard this year – its “Trinity” of gongs, its towering harmonic overhangs and its extended – a bed of strings rising and singing like a breath, fading away to the rhythm of a setting sun.
The evening concluded with an experience of sorts: a spirited run through Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “La nuit des tropiques” performed by a stack of members of the PostClassical Ensemble and the talented (and amply endowed) student orchestra DESA, with Gil-Ordóñez and DESA conductor Isaac Daniel, splits the duties on the podium. (Daniel also serves as assistant principal, a remarkably effective way to control his orchestra.)
Gottschalk’s piano chops, natural stage direction, and omnivorous musical appetite (informed by the New Orleans-born composer’s Creole heritage, as well as his extensive travels to Cuba and South America) have earned him a international fame in the middle of the 19th century. Gottschalk was also something of a maximalist, staging “monster” concerts – a “Tannhäuser” for 14 pianos, for example, or a “William Tell” overture for over 20 pianos.
So this mini-monster – which maxed out the DESA stage capacity at 86 – felt like a fitting homage to the explosive performance of the complete work in 1860 Havana, for which Gottschalk collected nearly 900 musicians and singers.
But it also felt like a fitting reminder of why we’re tackling music we’ve never heard in the first place. It helps us reconstruct the past, of course; but ideally it helps us narrow down the future.