On March 1, the Central Ohio Symphony performed a concert that included composers and musicians from many multicultural regions around the globe: America, Austria, Italy, Puerto Rico, Russia, Spain, Venezuela, and more.
The concert began with a nod to Black History Month. William Grant Still (1895-1978), the Dean of African-American music, was a remarkable prolific composer who wrote symphonies, operas, ballets, concert suites, radio and film music, chamber works, songs, and more. He was the first African-American composer to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra, the first to have an opera produced by a major company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television. It was Ohio where he honed his compositional skills and first found success. His musical journey began at Wilberforce University, the nation’s first private, historically black university, located not far from Dayton. After leaving Wilberforce in 1915 without having graduated, Still played in jazz bands and wrote arrangements to earn a living while continuing his education in music at Oberlin College. After two decades in New York, he moved to Los Angeles in 1934.
While Still enjoyed much success, he also suffered from systemic racial discrimination throughout his life. For example, when he married pianist Verna Arvey in 1939, the couple had to travel to Tijuana in Mexico because interracial marriage was illegal in California at that time. Also in 1939, Still composed “Song of a City” for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, but he could not attend the fair himself except on ”Negro Day.”
His “Festive Overture” (1944) is rarely heard, but it is a remarkable work. It is confident, optimistic, and very American. It does not shy away from dissonances, but embraces them. A profuse amount of brass and percussion reflects the unstoppable dynamism that characterized the U.S. in the middle of the 20th century. The overture contains several recurring themes and motifs, most of them relatively short. If you listen closely, you can hear echoes of Howard Harold Hanson’s symphonies, film music, and even jazz. More than 70 years have passed since its original performance, so the overture is now in the public domain and likely to be performed more frequently. It captures the American spirit well.
The second work on the program was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Sinfonia concertante” (1779) for orchestra, viola, and violin. The orchestra is bare bones, allowing violinist Simón Gollo and violist Randolph Kelly to be physically and musically front and center. Both soloists are superb masters of their instruments, capable of producing rich, fluid, melodious sounds. The expressive dialog between the two instruments was mesmerizing. At times they conversed with each other and repeated each other’s line, at other times they closely hugged each other. In fact, the embrace of the violin and the viola in the Andante movement later became the basis for the famous love duet in Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni.” The pared-down orchestra, while essential, was relegated to a subsidiary role. Kelly is near the end of his distinguished 43-year career as principal violist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Venezuelan-born Gollo, on the other hand, is just starting a distinguished international career as soloist, conductor, and teacher at New Mexico State University. Despite their many personal, generational, and cultural differences, however, the two players played in perfect harmony.
After intermission, the concert continued with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s lush “Cappriccio espagnol” (1887), an impressionistic fantasy on national themes from Spain that include folk songs, Gypsy dances, and Sephardic motifs. A capriccio is typically a light composition – lively in tempo, brilliant in style, and free in form. The rousing last movement, an upbeat fandango in triple time, brought the capriccio to a close. In a traditional fandango, musicians, dancers, and guests take turns performing. In this case, various instruments (the clarinet, violin, horn, flute, harp, and cello) made cameo appearances, adding variety and color.
One of Rimsky-Korsakov’s students was Italian composer Ottorino Respighi, who greatly admired his teacher’s lavish instrumentation and orchestration and tried to emulate it in his own compositions. People are more familiar with Respighi’s earlier tone poems “Pines of Rome” and “Fountains of Rome,” which have a more sunny and pleasant disposition. With the “Roman Festivals” (1928) on the other hand, we are entering an unexpectedly dark realm. The very first movement, “Circenses” (Circus Games), catapults the listener into the primal and primeval world of gladiators fighting for their survival. The music is so wild and savage, even more extreme than Igor Stravinsky’s famous “Rite of Spring,” that it almost ceases to be music and turns into deafening madness. Off-stage trumpet fanfares effectively complement the soundscape. Conductors sometimes have the tendency to dilute the composition’s harshness by romanticizing it. Not so Maestro Jaime Morales-Matos; he threw the contours of “Roman Festivals” in sharp relief.
None of the other three movements, played without interruptions, are much easier on the listener’s ears even though on occasion there are deceptive moments of melodic calmness or Dionysian revelry. For example, there is a waltz theme in the last movement, but within seconds it becomes totally deconstructed. Whereas “Pines of Rome” and “Fountains of Rome” portray the positive side of Mediterranean culture, it might be argued that “Roman Festivals” allows us a glimpse into Italy’s primordial and subconscious underbelly. It is debatable to what extent Respighi was attracted and tempted by Mussolini’s fascist dream, but there is no denying that there is a correlation. Needless to say, the example of Richard Wagner shows us that even the most divine music and culture can sometimes be corrupted and contaminated by anti-Semitism, sexism, and other evils.
“Roman Festivals” is a wild, orgiastic ride that is demanding even for the best orchestras in the world. Respighi throws the kitchen sink and everything else there is at the audience. There were 10 percussionists on stage, bells were ringing, the organ (James Hildreth) was blaring, the piano played, and even a mandolin (Eugene Braig) appeared seemingly out of nowhere. However, under the direction of Maestro Jaime Morales Matos the Symphony acquitted itself brilliantly. Amidst what could have been utter chaos he acted as a strict enforcer of law and order, always insisting on musical exactitude.
The next concert is scheduled for April 25. The Symphony is asking the community to share historic photographs of ancestral immigrants and their way of life for a video project that is part of Peter Boyer’s “Ellis Island: The Dream of America.” If you can help, get in touch with the office at 24 E. Winter St. soon.
A final note. Some folks may prefer not to think about it, but given the rapidly unfolding situation with the coronavirus pandemic, it is possible that in one or two months from now there will be federal or state directives in place intended to close down schools and universities, sports and concert venues, museums and churches. This has already happened in many countries around the world. Several U.S. states are contemplating similar draconian steps right now.
After the first Covid-19 cases were confirmed in Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine has also declared a state of emergency. However, there is no reason to be fearful and to panic. The ordinary flu remains an infinitely greater risk to vulnerable people with underlying health conditions. Let’s hope that the novel coronavirus will not hit Ohio too hard and that we will all meet again in April to enjoy the Symphony’s next concert.
Thomas K. Wolber, Ph.D., teaches foreign languages and literatures at Ohio Wesleyan University. He has an undergraduate degree in music from a German university, plays the piano, and is passionate about classical music. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.