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Raleigh Civic Symphony Wraps up African-American Heritage Series

by John W. Lambert

Roy C. Dicks' report of the April 24 NCSU concert by the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra (published elsewhere in this column) whetted our appetite for the April 27 concluding program of the Raleigh Civic Symphony Association's springtime African-American Heritage series, and we were not disappointed when, in Stewart Theatre, the concert reached a blazing, dramatic conclusion with "Harlem Essay" (1999), the signature work of visiting composer Daniel Bernard Roumain ( http://dbrmusic.com/ ). He is young, enthusiastic, tireless (apparently), and articulate. He wears dreadlocks, speaks with the quiet assurance of a seasoned professor with a profound commitment to his field, and delivers bear hugs in a manner that suggests the effervescent Mstislav Rostropovich. RCSO Music Director Randolph Foy's extensive program notes (surely among the best in the region) reveal that Roumain is into hip-hop, funk, rap, and jazz, all of which - and more - are readily apparent in this brilliant series of vignettes about his home town, where he lives near the intersection of 119th Street and Lenox Avenue - brought to international prominence by William Grant Still, among others. The music is an often wild amalgam of this and that, featuring sometimes provocative, sometimes reflective, sometimes amusing voices from the diverse community (a Ms. Wong observes that "Harlem is full of Black people, and it is not as scary as it used to be for a Chinese person... because there are always Chinese takeouts everywhere..."). There are many works that embody principles of community and brotherhood, ranging from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony down. This work by Roumain is one of the most powerful and effective I've yet heard, anywhere. And the RSCO played it beautifully, swinging, speaking, and playing like the possessed souls they clearly were, at the end of the composer's visit here, in our community . (For more information about the visitor, see our colleague Roy C. Dicks' fine preview, in the April 18 edition of the N&O' s "What's Up.")

The concert was a Whitman's Sampler of distinguished music by (mostly) African-Americans. The opening work, by African- British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, was the lone exception to the program's heritage theme. It was good to revisit his "Danse Negre" because it is so well known, for it allowed for a good assessment of the quality of the orchestra itself, which is outstanding - this group seems to improve with every concert. George Walker's Four Spirituals are thorny, and alas the singer scheduled to have sung them in advance of the orchestra versions was indisposed; I say "alas" in part because not all of them were, at first hearing, recognizable, although the source songs are in common currency. The first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize clearly had an academic, modern streak in him, and this score is a tough one for audiences and (presumably) players alike. Two movements from William Levi Dawson's famous "Negro Folk Symphony" (premiered and recorded, in its revised version, by Stokowski) were welcome samples of a major work that merits revival here. And "Epitaph for a Man who Dreamed" ("In Memoriam Dr. Martin Luther King"), by Adolphus Hailstork (of Norfolk's Old Dominion University), proved to be a deeply stirring tribute to the slain leader; devoid of narration, it spoke eloquently and directly to the hearts and souls of those in attendance.

These fine works led to the grand finale, which was the afternoon's pièce de résistance in every respect. On the heels of its quasi-choral introduction, its varied taped (and digitally-altered) commentary, and its sometimes crashing and conflicting styles, often verging on pastiche a la the best of Charles Ives, the quiet, dramatic ending, played in near-total darkness by pianist Kent Lyman (on loan from Meredith College) worked magic on the large crowd - which included students from Hunter Elementary School, Enloe High School, the DuBois Center (http://wfrhs.wcpss.net/DuBois/ [inactive 4/04]), Wake Forest Elementary School, and Wake Forest Middle School, where Roumain had spent a lot of his time here, during the previous week. Here's hoping these RSCA's concerts of African-American fare weren't one-time affairs and that Foy and his colleagues will bring more such music to the Triangle in the near future. Plans are in place for more..., but everything hinges on funding.

 

   
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