There was music in the air, lots of music, as the Fayetteville Symphony Orchestra‘s 61st season continued to unfold under new music director Stefan Sanders The occasion was a splendid program featuring some rarely-heard music. The concert date of February 10 was about a third of the way through the shortest month, traditionally reserved for celebrations of black history. (The struggle continues, but there’s much to celebrate.) And this time, at this concert, the focus was on the sesquicentennial of the institution known as Fayetteville State University, which began its then-meager existence in a shack that had served as an elementary school with $139, pooled by seven far-sighted former slaves, and which hosted this celebratory evening in its excellent and visually appealing auditorium that bears the name of Seabrook.

The story is here. The celebration is a year-long affair, consisting of numerous events, including many concerts and other performances, for details of which, click here.

The evening’s guest soloist was the distinguished African-American soprano Angela Brown, whose international career has taken her literally around the globe, to the world’s leading opera houses. Verdi is her specialty, and Verdi figured in the FSO’s wonderful program, tied in uniquely inasmuch as Don Carlo, among the Italian master’s most important works, premiered in 1867, the same year that what became FSU was also launched.

But the concert wasn’t your typical orchestra program with visiting operatic diva, for this lineup included representative examples from the pens of some of our greatest American (and British) composers of color – Scott Joplin (c.1868-1917), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), William Grant Still (1895-1978), and Florence Price (1887-1953), whose name has been in the news of late ‒ in The New Yorker and the NY Times ‒ due to the fairly recent discovery of a cache of long-lost scores.

Other works on the program were by George Gershwin (1898-1936) and Lee Hoiby (1926-2011), the latter represented by a dramatic cantata featuring the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.

An opening announcement conveyed news of Mme. Brown’s indisposition, due to upper-respiratory issues; she sang, and there was little aural evidence of any problems. The voice is huge, with an astonishing range from the richest-imaginable chest register to stratospheric high soprano notes, beautifully focused. Her work in opera houses must surely astound listeners, as reviews from everywhere attest. At this concert, in these circumstances, with a substantial orchestra behind her (as opposed to forward of and below her, in a pit), there were some balance issues, particularly when there was a bit too much instrumental sound and when she was singing in those amazing lower reaches. There were also issues with diction throughout, but her grateful listeners were nonetheless hard-pressed to contain their enthusiasm ‒ and generally didn’t! (The absence from the program of texts for the vocal numbers was in this regard a bit of a liability, and a translation of the Don Carlo aria would have been particularly helpful.)

The concert began with a rousing reading of Verdi’s overture to La forza del destino, a potboiler that showed the state of the orchestra under Sanders to be superb in every respect. There were not enough basses and probably fewer cellos than usual, but the sound of the strings was outstanding, with clear definition and precise attacks, and the winds and brass were remarkable for their accuracy and total integration into the overall scheme of things. Playing like this would be welcome on any of our nation’s best stages.

Joplin’s opera Treemonisha has been edited and orchestrated by many hands, including the distinguished African-American composer (and former Durham resident) T.J. Anderson. Here it was played – radiantly – in an admirable version by Rick Benjamin (whose performance of the complete opera is linked from his orchestra’s website).

There followed Elisabetta’s prayer from Don Carlo, sung in Italian, in which Brown met her audience as she unfolded this great scene from one of Verdi’s most dramatic operas. (Yes, I know we are supposed to bow before Otello and Falstaff but Don Carlo is simply terrific in every conceivable respect.) She brought down the house, in a manner of speaking – and the orchestra was with her 100% of the time, with Sanders ever alert to his guest’s phrasing and interpretive niceties.

Part two began with a single movement (of five) from Colerdige-Taylor’s Othello Suite that was sufficiently attractive one wished to have heard the rest of it.* “Summertime” followed; Clara’s Porgy and Bess showstopper was immaculately and lovingly sung.

William Grant Still was represented by a lovely, mostly introspective set of four women’s songs, From the Hearts of Women, with words by Verna Arvey, the composer’s wife. Here, Brown’s interpretive skills were exemplary as she put across these often-profound sentiments. Still was a master orchestrator, and the pointing up of the songs with numerous instrumental felicities gave yet another example of his brilliance, brilliance not far removed from Rimsky-Korsakov or Ravel.

Next up was a set of three Dances in the Canebrakes by Florence Price, scored for orchestra by Still. There are lots of slave dance tunes among the output of our important composers of color, and these three, originally for piano, are typical. They work well as keyboard pieces, but Still brings them more vividly to life, and the orchestra played them for all they were worth and then some.

The grand finale was Hoiby’s 1988 setting (premiered 1995) of “I have a dream.”. The music complements but rarely overpowers the sung text, ranging from a dramatic “Battle Hymn” introduction to softer commentary as the words unfold. The composer admirably captured the rhythm of the speech itself, rhythm that other composers, in other MLK tribute pieces, have also sought to convey. Amplification of the solo singer might have been helpful here, as the orchestra sometimes came close to engulfing her. The piece ends powerfully, and the audience loved it, standing to applaud with enthusiasm and being in turn rewarded with a lovely rendition of “He’s got the whole world in His hands” as the encore.

The concert was preceded by a fine panel discussion hosted by Joshua Busman (the FSO’s “music nerd”) that involved Sanders, principal percussionist Don Parker, and FSU Chancellor James Anderson in a wide-ranging, all-encompassing conversation.

The FSO’s season continues on March 10 at Methodist University. For details, see our calendar.

*Coleridge-Taylor visited American three times – in 1904, 1906, and 1910.