The purpose of Saturday evening’s Orlando Philharmonic concert was to pay tribute to the life and work of Florida-based African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston. The program included the world premiere of Zora! We’re Calling You, which narrates the life, work and spirit of the writer.
After a short lively piece by leading African American composer Adolphus Hailstork, Music Director Christopher Wilkins launched his orchestra into perhaps the best performance of the evening: Frederick Delius’ Appalachia. Although Delius was born and raised in England, he spent his life in many other parts of the world, absorbing diverse musical styles and composing under their influence. The performance was dynamic and true to the composer’s vision, insofar as can be assessed. The highlight of the performance was the offstage Florida Opera Theatre Chorus, directed by Robin Stamper. The singers joined the orchestra onstage for the joyous choral finale. The soloist, baritone James Brown III, did a great job. His deep vocals could be appreciated and singled out even when heard simultaneously with the rest of the choir.
The masterpiece in the evening’s program was Copland’s classic Appalachian Spring, which was well performed but not particularly inspired or moving. Unfortunately, it seems like a great deal of patrons sitting in the orchestra section were a bit under the weather, as an incessant string of unmuffled coughing and clearing of throats – hard as I tried to ignore them – were a detriment to the performance of the early stages of the piece. It seems like the acoustics of the Bob Carr greatly amplify any noises coming from the audience, and can be heard loudly, especially up in the balcony. As far as the work of the musicians is concerned, though, they did a decent job. The strong point was the lush orchestral swell toward the end of the famous ‘Simple Gifts’ variations.
What should have been the major highlight of the evening – the world premiere of Hailstork’s tribute to Hurston – was rather a major disappointment. Although the piece more than did justice to its worthy subject matter and infused the audience with a solid notion of the writer’s work and personality, the hackneyed score came across as a mere vehicle for the telling of the story, when the music should have been the point of focus. Regrettably, it seems like Hailstork granted librettist and spoken-word narrator Elizabeth Van Dyke free reign over her role, and the ensuing lengthy text took much away from what could have been a great piece of music. Honorable as the extra-musical inspiration behind the music was, the subject matter and text should have been at the mercy of the music. Instead, the audience was presented with a comprehensive narrative about Hurston, which almost resulted in the piece being a short lesson in African-American culture rather than a composition of merit.
The narration should have been more poetic and less historical, more sparse and less concerned with the telling of facts. If there really was the necessity to provide a detailed historical account of Hurston’s life, then a different medium should have been chosen. In addition to all this, I do not doubt Hailstork’s talent as a composer in the least; however, it seems like he resorted a few times too many to the Modern Anthology of Orchestral Clichés for this one. Examples: the percussion plays the short-short-long motif – the typical musical depiction of knocking – when the narrator mentions something about someone knocking on the door; the saxophone, drums and other instruments take on a jazzy vamp when the narrator says something about jazz; the age-old over-used orchestral imitation of trains, and many others. Most of the devices he uses come across as ‘easy answers’ and make the music rather kitschy.
On a brighter note, I do applaud the effort by Wilkins and company to have an all-American music program. All four of the pieces were conceived, written and premiered in American soil, and are the product of the cultural diversity and rich musical palette that makes our American music so incredibly original and unsurpassable.
To visit the Web site of the Orlando Philharmonic, click here.
To read Matt Palm’s review, from the Orlando Sentinel, of the concert, click here.
To read OPO Music Director Christopher Wilkins’ comments about the program, click here.
To listen to an excerpt from Delius’ Appalachia, click here.