Conductor: Piotr Gajewski
Wynton Marsalis: Wild Strumming of Fiddle (from All Rise)
Florence Price: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major
Melissa White: Violin
George Walker: Lyric for Strings
William Grant Still: Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American)
I do not need an excuse to go back to my former home of Washington, D.C. for a visit. There’s plenty to do there anytime. But having a special incentive does not hurt either. And I certainly had one last weekend, when I went down to our nation’s capital not only to bask in a couple of gloriously sunny days, but also to go back to my old stomping ground at the Strathmore Music Center on Saturday night to hear the National Philharmonic perform “Black Pioneers in Classical Music”, a particularly appealing program scheduled right in time for Black History Month and, incidentally I would presume, on my Saint's Day.
While originally perusing the concert’s description, Wynton Marsalis’ name immediately jumped at me, and Florence Price rang a bell because she has finally been getting the recognition she deserves. However, I have to admit that I had no idea who George Walker and William Grant Still were. But then again, it is never too late to learn, and I was determined to make up for lost time with my local friend Vittorio, who was just as eager for some musical enlightenment after a wonderful Saturday spent enjoying the visual arts on the Mall, including the odd couple of Marcel Duchamp and Cate Blanchett at the Hirshhorn Museum (Needless to say, in separate exhibits).
To whet our appetite, a pre-concert conversation between Samuel Thompson, violinist and creative director of the International Florence Price Festival, and Rebecca Smithorn, cover conductor of the National Philharmonic, shed some interesting light on the compositions soon to be heard, their creators and their context. Even better, the opening remarks of National Philharmonic’s music director and conductor Piotr Gajewski promising more diverse programming in the near future were literally music to our ears.
The sizable concert hall was not as full as could have been expected for such an titillating line-up in such a multiracial region, but on the other hand, the audience was for sure more diverse than usual, which was, all things considered, an encouraging start.
American music royalty Wynton Marsalis, the unquestionable star of the program and living symbol of cross-over musical experiences, kicked off the concert with the tense and throbbing opening sounds of “Wild Strumming of Fiddle”, a seven-minute movement extracted from his monumental 1999 oratorio All Rise. The music eventually became more melodic and rhythmical, without losing its edge, and more interesting too as a whole sonic patchwork was taking shape in intriguing fits and starts, drawing its inspiration from classical music, jazz and blues, and boldly mixing them up for a truly explosive cocktail.
Next, I am happy to confirm that the piece I came over 200 miles for, Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No. 1 from 1939, is a worthy addition to the already crowded violin concerto repertoire. The expansive first movement could be best described as Tchaikovsky meets Gershwin on Price’s terms as it contains unmistakable tidbits from Tchaikovsky’s hyper-popular violin concerto and the occasional jazzy air à la Gershwin in a nevertheless very personal style. Indeed, for all those familiar sounds, the prodigiously talented Miss Price ̶ A mixed-race woman could not become a star student of the New England Conservatory of Music by chance in the early 20th century ̶ was not shy about going her own way, and the score wasted no time revealing a totally unique and powerful voice.
It takes a brilliant woman to channel another brilliant woman seamlessly, and the naturally radiant violinist Melissa White was all Florence Price could have hoped for in an advocate. When I read in her bio that she was a member of the fabulous Harlem Quartet, whose dazzling skills had blown me away over a decade ago in a concert at the Library of Congress, I just knew we were all in excellent hands. And sure enough, after fiercely bringing out the virtuosic originality of the first movement, she just as expertly worked her way through the thoughtful Andante, before whole-heartedly diving into the joyful Allegro. Rather than trying to impress us with flashy pyrotechnics, White had clearly decided to let the piece tell its own story in its own language, and the result was just plain terrific.
The composition and performance were in fact so remarkable that a standing ovation greeted the end of the first movement, and since musicians and conductor joined in to applaud the soloist, I briefly thought that, lo and behold, we were done. But the maestro quickly reassured us that there was more to come, and everybody happily sat back down.
After intermission, the exquisite 1946 “Lyric for Strings” by George Walker, the first African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, slowly unfolded for a couple of minutes of pure melodic bliss, with just the right amount of poignancy. If your heart melts every time you hear Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, this one’s for you too. A string orchestra arrangement of the second movement of Walker’s String Quartet No. 1, this little gem has been one of the most frequently performed orchestral works by a contemporary American composer, and certainly by Walker, whose œuvre contains over 90 works of many different kinds.
The Symphony No. 1 by William Grant Still, a contemporary of Florence Price who produced more than 150 works spanning a wide range of styles (Take that, Walker!), was the first symphony written by an African-American composer and premiered in 1930. Unsurprisingly, it features a healthy dose of blues and jazz elements, with chief among them references to Gershwin’s “I got rhythm” peppering the third movement. The presence of less conventional instruments such as the celeste, the harp, and the tenor banjo into the full orchestra was carefully incorporated, and yet the work felt spontaneous and buoyant pretty much throughout. The orchestra sounded positively excited about sinking their teeth into a fresh and juicy challenge, and Gajewski made sure they communicated their enthusiasm to the rest of us in a colorful and energetic performance. One could have hardly imagined better advertising for their upcoming more diverse programming.