The Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic launched its 35th season with a concert at Bishop Ireton High School Sunday night that demonstrated the emphasis that Music Director Ulysses S. James is placing for the season on new works and rarely heard pieces by African-American composers.
The featured work of the evening was William Levi Dawson's 1934 "Negro Folk Symphony," while a real highlight of the concert was the world premiere of a 10-minute composition titled "Unlikely Visions" by Alexandria composer Jamie Kowalski.
The orchestra has launched a new works competition, receiving 30 submissions from composers throughout the mid-Atlantic region from which they picked three. Each will be performed at a concert this season.
Taking the votes of concert-goers into consideration, a winner will be selected, and next season the orchestra will program three full length pieces from the winner.
Kowalski's short piece is a four-segment rumination that attempts to put in musical terms his impressions from four images that lingered in his mind after dream-like moments during bouts of insomnia. Ranging from "A Miniature Spectacle" to "Dust Ascending," with only ten minutes in total length, no one segment holds the spotlight for long.
It all begins with "Overgrowth," a two-minute collection of sounds from the brass and woodwinds supported by a sonic environment from the strings. The movement "Suddenly Moths," as you might expect, features wing batting effects contrasted with some graceful flight motifs which dissolve into a warm, enveloping soundscape.
THE FIRST HALF of the concert actually began with 11 of the orchestra's brass players teaming up to perform the "Serenade for Brass" by Robert Starer, the Austrian-born composer who taught at the Juliard School in New York. Perhaps James was signaling his support for his brass players by opening the first concert of the season with this piece. Brass, especially horns, can be problematic for local orchestras as a sour note here or there from such prominent instruments can be so noticeable during a concert. This ensemble played well and made the Starer piece a real pleasure.
The most traditional portion of the concert was a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's "Piano Concerto Number 2," which dates to the period after the fall of Stalin, whose control over things cultural had caused the composer such hardships. Performing with the orchestra was Betty Bullock, whose playing captured much of the feeling of excitement over newfound freedoms which Shostakovich expressed in his music. From the good humored, well mannered introduction through delicate mid section and the emotion of the finale, the Bullock's approach was clean, clear and well executed. Her sharp emphasis on the right hand kept her out front of the forces of the full orchestra.
To introduce the second half of the concert, James turned to Lafayette Frederick of Alexandria, who had known the composer of the work about to be played. The piece was the "Negro Folk Symphony" of William Levi Dawson. Frederick knew Dawson, when, as a student at the Tuskegee Institute, he attended the mandatory religious services in the chapel three times a week.
Dawson was best known as the leader of the Tuskegee Institute's choir in the 1920s and 30s. Indeed, Dawson took the choir to New York where they performed for the opening of the Radio City Music Hall. While there, he showed his draft symphony to Leopold Stokowski who eventually gave the piece its premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The three-movement work is, as its composer said, "based entirely on themes from Negro spirituals." It has sweep, lyrical richness and a deep sense of drama which makes it fascinating listening, especially in the first two of its three movements.
It begins with a brief descending phrase stated by the horns which is picked up and supported by the strings and soon the entire orchestra is in full voice. Later, a tripping mid section becomes a dramatic blast of full symphonic fanfare. The second movement opens with a lovely melody stated by the oboe which is echoed by the swelling strings.
Both of the first two movements maintain a satisfying sense of intensity as the material alternates between big, bold and boisterous at some times and soft, intimate interludes at others. The third movement seems at times to falter in its focus. Overall, the piece is one that deserves more frequent exposure. It will please listeners who are partial to the kind of romantic, full-throated treatment of folk themes that make Dvorak's New World Symphony so popular. It is also a challenge for a quality orchestra and the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic under Ulysses S. James demonstrated its capacity to handle large pieces like this in fine fashion.
The concert will be repeated this Sunday, October 22, at 5 p.m. at the Church of the Epiphany in Washington.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a website covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.