The Durham Symphony Orchestra – well, a little over half of it – returned to its “second home,” the Hayti Heritage Center, for the ensemble’s annual salute to distinguished African-American artists, missing the end of Black History Month by only three days.* The program was titled “Songs of the South,” but the subtitle – “Tributes to Southern Artistic Creativity & Mardi Gras” – was key to understanding the wildly diverse offerings brought forward in this marathon artistic extravaganza, which embraced ragtime, spirituals, dance in several forms, jazz, the classics – Price, Still, and music from Joplin’s opera – interleaved with dramatic readings from four major writers. The soloists, a veritable who’s who of stellar local talent, included (in order of appearance) Nancy Whelan, Dasan Ahanu,** Rozlyn Sorrell, Al Strong, Omar Ruiz-Lopez, Brendan Smith and Nigel Moore (Art of Cool project participants), and Tina Morris-Anderson. Most of the music heard was not written for orchestra so there were lots and lots of arrangements and orchestrations – for the record, by Stark-Schuller, Curry, Kay, Ricketts, Delisle-Schuller, Still, Strong, Lyon, and Hardy.

Two of the three Joplin rags were heard in orchestrations dating from the composer’s time, albeit updated by Gunther Schuller; the other one was arranged and orchestrated by local composer G. Oakley Lyon – all these pieces clearly stemmed from the same source; each was idiomatically set and brilliantly realized.

Sorrell’s rendition of “Ride on, King Jesus,” given in an orchestration by conductor and music director William Henry Curry, finally displaced memories of another great performance of this piece, by tenor Curtis Rayam, given in a North Raleigh church, decades ago. She returned just before the intermission to deliver Curry’s own tribute to victims and survivors of Katrina, “Mardi Gras 2006,” a work the composer himself says – with complete justification – she owns. She was back in the second half, singing with the radiant Morris-Anderson “A Real Slow Drag” from Joplin’s extraordinary opera (yes!), Treemonisha – the first important orchestration of which was by the great T.J. Anderson, for many years a much loved and admired resident of the Triangle; and – joined by all the major solo artists and the audience – the grand finale, Albert E. Brumley‘s “I’ll Fly Away” (1929), set by yet another local treasure, McRae Hardy.

The jazz offerings included a magnificent four-number tribute to Louis Armstrong, featuring his trumpet-playing reincarnation, Al Strong – you really ought to have been there! – and, in part two, Woody Shaw‘s “Sun Bath,” for which he was joined onstage by two of his stellar Art of Cool students, pianist Brendan Smith and bassist Nigel Moore.

Other highlights included “classical” music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk (b. New Orleans, 1829) as used in the ballet Cakewalk, prepared for the New York City Ballet; two exceptional pieces by the newly-rediscovered Florence Price – numbers orchestrated by William Grant Still, “Dean of African-American Composers”; and the important banjo-infused Animato movement from his Afro-American Symphony, prefaced by profoundly moving remarks sent by Judith Anne Still, the composer’s daughter, for presentation at this concert.

The whole program – all two and a half hours of it – was woven together with compelling remarks by Maestro Curry. The executive directors of Hayti and the DSO also spoke. The energy levels were consistently high, the technical executions – by which I mean the playing and singing and recitations – were at exalted levels, the audience clearly loved it – there was even a shouted “Amen” every now and then – fitting, of course, for this venue.

So if you were there, you will know to go next time, and if you weren’t you should. As an added incentive, some of the pews are cushioned.

Hooray, hooray.

*African-American Music History Month is actually in June, per two presidential proclamations, so in theory the DSO could do another program well before the formal end of spring!

**Ahanu’s “Black Holiness,” reproduced below with the author’s permission, was read during this concert. The other recitations were from published work by Sterling Brown (“in conversation with Zora Neale Hurston“), Charles Wright (from Black Zodiac), and James Weldon Johnson, author of the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (“Listen Lord, A Prayer,” from God’s Trombones.)

Below is the poem “Black Holiness” by Dasan Ahanu:

Ain’t no glory like lifted voices
Crescendo like burning sage
like whips and auction blocks
like late nights through Bayous
like lost days in classrooms,
last days on street corners,
Sundays spent praying for
the blessed assurance
you gon see another sunrise
Ain’t that sound deep and guttural?
Ain’t it song?

If there is one truth I know
Ain’t no heaven like a Black woman’s dinner table
Ain’t no hallelujah better than redemption songs
All charcoal and shotgun
Ain’t no almanac for the notes you learn painful
No census for the massive of that reverie
No recipe for the way melody, molasses, and butter
make Jesus’ harmony leavened
Don’t it feed you like loaves and fish?
Don’t it sit in your chest like hung on cross?
Won’t it come back when boulder burdened by silence
Ain’t it prettier than Easter service?
We call holy random,
but ain’t it just right time, right place?

Aint that love as proud and specific
as who made the stuffing and potato salad?
Don’t it smell like pearly gates opened
Feel like liberation rang the doorbell
They say you can find our Lord and Savior
on the right hand of God
Then you can find that matriarchal choir
on the left
Gossip and memory never sounded so glorious
Laughter made you believe tomorrow was possible
Smiles made you think hate
was a boogeyman for another night
Ain’t no glue like a Black woman’s belief
She say it’s gone be ok
It be
She say it’s in God’s hands
It be
She say food is served
It be

It be an alter and an anarchy
Ain’t no glory but God’s
Ain’t no rule but theirs
It be a sanctuary and a sermon
A boot camp and a blessing
Where you don’t question the authority
You know when to fall in line
You take orders as they come
This battalion be they babies
no matter the age
This meal is a strategy
we are thankful for
So very thankful
Ain’t no better lesson in leadership
than plate made
Ain’t no better gratitude
than plate clean
Ain’t no better reminder
than seconds served
Here we learn that there is
always more work to do

Didn’t Moses and Aaron spend
40 years in the wilderness
before making it to the promised land?
Ain’t it a Black woman’s magic
that reduced it to only 6 days?
What a miracle it is
The way they gather us like disciples
Scripture us family
Teach us that faith can move us forward
whether blood or promised before pastor
whether adopted or seeking admission
Family without works is a flatlined blasphemy
That ain’t what they made us for
Ain’t no excuse a good enough amnesia
Ain’t no trouble a strong enough divide
That table be affirmation that the best
of what we are is a full meal

When that song stops
Ain’t ailment nothing but Judas?
Ain’t crucifixion just a teary eye home going?
Ain’t the three days after
your last hope?
Don’t them tears fall in rhythm to that song?
Don’t you sing along without ever noticing
how easily the notes come?
Ain’t that the best gift you have ever been given?
To know what that hymn sounds like,
what it feels like?
To know what that kitchen supposed to be like?
If there is one truth we know
Ain’t no heaven like a Black woman’s dinner table
Ain’t no hallelujah better than redemption songs
All charcoal and shotgun
All magic and miracle
All Black
and Black