NSO, 'Sweet Honey in the Rock' team for 'Affirmations'

William C. Banfield's collaborative 'Symphony No. 1' in Kennedy Center world premiere performance. Photo: Scott Suchman

WASHINGTON, April 15, 2012 – Last weekend’s National Symphony Orchestra concert at the Kennedy Center was, as the old Monty Python troupe used to say, something “completely different.” Neither a pop concert nor standard symphonic, Beethoven dominated fare, the entire concert, staged on Friday and Saturday evenings only, was designed to frame the world premiere of William C. Banfield’s “Symphony No. 10: Affirmations for a New World.”

An unusual collaboration of the composer and the popular à cappella ensemble “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” the new symphony has its roots in the rise of Barack Obama and celebrates, in its own way, the successful conclusion of a very long and very troubled journey of a people who have broken through impossible barriers at last.

In addition to featuring the singing (and the poetry) of Sweet Honey in the Rock, Mr. Banfield’s symphony also incorporated work for a large chorus, whose voices were supplied for this world premiere by one of America’s premiere choral ensembles: Maryland’s renowned Morgan State University Choir, currently under the direction of Eric Conway.

Thomas Wilkins conducts NSO and Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Thomas Wilkins conducts NSO and Sweet Honey in the Rock.
(Credit: Scott Suchman.)

The entire evening highlighted classical music with a decidedly African-American flair—a revelation for those who imagine that African-Americans never have or have had much to do with the classical concert stage.

In keeping with the upbeat “Affirmation” theme of the evening, guest conductor Thomas Wilkins—who normally helms the Omaha Symphony—unveiled an eclectic program whose first half highlighted upbeat, positive, “affirmative” music that endorsed the human drive and spirit, deploying the mood this music set as a kind of advance act before the main event.

Bookended by Bernstein’s ever-popular, frantic Overture to “Candide” and the driving, dramatic finale of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, the program’s first half consisted of excerpts from black composers whose work clearly needs to be heard in its entirety. Adding to the positive mood, Mr. Wilkins provided expert background narrative on most of these pieces.

After the Bernstein Overture, Mr. Wilkins and the NSO performed an excerpt of the wonderfully-named 19th century British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s rhythmic and very Romantic “Danse Negre.” Half African, Coleridge-Taylor—who tragically died of pneumonia early in the 20th century in his late thirties—was highly regarded by the British and produced a number of major compositions in his short life.

In some ways an answer to Coleridge-Taylor, Mr. Wilkins and the NSO also presented the elegiac “Adagio” movement from Adolphus Hailstork’s “Symphony No. 1.” A lovely, tonal excerpt that eschewed the nervous tics of our recent obsession with atonality, the ensemble’s elegant performance left the audience with two questions: First, where’s the rest of this wonderful piece? And second, why haven’t we heard more from this contemporary composer who’s spent much of his compositional and teaching career in Virginia? (He’s currently teaching at Old Dominion University.)

It’s become reasonably well known that jazz great Duke Ellington also contributed some intriguing compositions to the classical repertoire. For this program, Mr. Wilkins chose to present Ellington’s driving, acidic, intriguing “King of the Magi” movement. This composition, along with the NSO’s enthusiastic performance, makes one wonder why Ellington’s classical compositions don’t appear more often in symphony concerts today.

Also on tap in the program’s first half: the “Aspirations” movement from William Grant Still’s (1875-1978) Symphony No. 1, subtitled “African-American.” It’s a major work from the pen of a man who was arguably the dean of America’s black composers and it’s a shame this moving work doesn’t show up more often on classical programming—a problem at least partially rectified here by the NSO’s fine performance of the excerpt.

Mr. Wilkins seems possessed with a remarkable sense of good humor, and this may have involved itself in his almost antic first-half selections. As we’ve already indicated, they certainly did serve to set the table for the program’s second half. But they also seem to have rather ingeniously been designed to get at least a portion of the audience ask to hear for more from these relatively unknown black composers (except for Ellington) in NSO seasons that are yet to come.

Unfortunately, the program’s second half didn’t quite live up to expectations. Or at least not those of this critic, as the audience, frankly, seemed delighted with Mr. Banfield’s new symphony and thrilled with the performance of Sweet Honey in the Rock in a new and unaccustomed role.

Mr. Banfield’s symphony is constructed in roughly the conventional four movement format—the exception being a two-part movement yoked together by a single, sustained note as its mood begins to change.

Each of the symphony’s four (or five) movements is built, in turn, around jazzy, freeform poems created by each of Sweet Honey’s five singing members. The music is tonal, engaging, and tastefully scored; the poetry—ranging from elegy to gospel and nearly to hip-hop—is rhythmic, passionate, and sincere; and the composition’s overall effect is indeed one of affirmation.

The problem, though, is one that’s not exactly uncommon in 20th and 21st century works of art, whether written, painted, sculpted, or scored. Both the symphony, and the poems upon which it is based, aspire to make a Big Important Statement. In so doing, all of the above tends to verge on the cliché, mistaking a grand pronouncement for a profound one. Indeed, Sweet Honey’s poetry seems to have been substantially revised and/or adapted from the verse that appeared in the printed program. What was actually sung was a considerably more refined, tightened, and shortened version of what appeared to be the original verses.

Taken as a whole, last weekend’s concerts proved an unusual plus for this NSO season. Audiences were treated to something old—including a couple of war horses paired with some new ones that deserve to be heard more often—and to something new—Mr. Banfield’s symphony, created with the assistance of the amazingly talented Sweet Honey in the Rock aided and abetted by the tightly crafted, wonderful harmonies added by the Morgan State University Choir.

Best of all, this unusual program was conducted and emceed by a Maestro who, in many ways, is the model of what a modern maestro should be: an expert conductor who’s capable of directing a fine orchestra in the direction that he wants, but a conductor who’s also capable of guiding and educating new and veteran audience members on a journey through unfamiliar repertoire while making that journey a most enjoyable one.

Capping off the evening, and delighting the audience even further, Sweet Honey reappeared on stage after the symphony and launched into an à cappella encore of “Operator: Information; Get Me Jesus on the Line,” a time honored classic that blew the top off the house. It was a terrific way to end this upbeat evening.

Rating: ** (Two out of four stars.)

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities column, The Prudent Man, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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