After a ten-year absence the Western Piedmont Symphony Orchestra returned to the P.E. Monroe Auditorium of Lenoir-Rhyne University for its Masterworks concert series. The Kontras Quartet – Dmitri Pogorelov and Francois Hankins, violins, Ai Ishida, viola, and Jean Hatmaker, cello – served as the string section principals.

Opening the program was the first concert performance ever of “Mop-Mop” by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004), a North Carolina native who was well known in both the jazz and classical worlds. It is a symphonic sketch based on a tune by Thelonius Monk and a drum solo created by Sid Catlett. The work is a fusion of jazz and classical elements, and the orchestra performed with vigor and enthusiasm.

In a complete change of pace, the orchestra played Symphony in D, Op. 11, No. 2 (also known as “Overture to L’amant anonyme”) by Joseph Boulogne, The Chevalier Saint George (1745-1799). Boulogne was a contemporary of Haydn and Mozart, and worked in France under the patronage of Marie Antoinette. The symphony is in three movements, with a slow movement sandwiched between two very fast movements. Here the orchestra was very nimble and agile, keeping its breakneck pace to the very end.

Composer Dolores White was on hand to hear the orchestra, along with soprano Jarae Lauren Payton and narrator LaKeisha Ross, perform her “Give Birth to the Dream.” This is a tone poem inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem “On the Pulse of Morning.” It paints images of human struggles, hopes, and dreams. Payton’s voice provided sumptuous colors to the poetry, and the wonderful narration by Ross underscored the drama of the work.

Africamerica – Sound Images for Piano and Orchestra by Anthony M. Kelley (born 1965) concluded the evening’s program. Dr. Kelley also served as piano soloist. The piece is divided into two sections. The first is a synthesis of African music based on a five-note scale using only the black keys of the piano, using percussion, woodwinds and piano, along with the strings playing a portion of Haydn’s Symphony No. 45 “Farewell.” This all represents the ultimate merger of African and European cultures after the end of slavery. The second half of the concerto represents slaves dancing on ship decks during their passage from Africa to the New World. The movement is in rondo form, and allows the pianist to improvise over the orchestra and during open spaces. This is a very interesting and complex work, and was quite ably negotiated by the orchestra and enhanced by the skillful playing of Kelley at the piano.

The stage of the P.E. Monroe Auditorium is now the proud possessor of a new orchestra shell, and what a difference this makes in the sound of the orchestra. Each section is now crystal clear, and the strings are more lush and full than I have ever heard them. The sound no longer gets lost on a high ceiling, and the percussion and brass are no longer amplified by a bare plaster wall in the back. Congratulations to Lenoir-Rhyne University and the Western Piedmont Symphony for this very welcome addition and improvement.