Saturday, February 25, 2017

concert review: Oakland Symphony

Michael Morgan's imaginative programming often takes the form of theme concerts with social relevance. Friday's turned out to be two of them.

The theme that was previously announced was Native America. This intrigued me. My past encounters with actual Native folk music I have not found, shall we say, enlightening. But I remain desirous of coming to a cultural understanding of the original inhabitants of my country; and this, I understood, would be actual Amerinds composing, not 19C white musical Longfellows like Dvorak and MacDowell writing tourist music.

Well, there was one of them. He is a Chickasaw named Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate* whose long choral suite Lowak Shoppala' (Fire and Light) got two movements performed which, it says, include "numerous traditional Chickasaw melodies and rhythms." One depicted a series of clan totem animals in jagged and dramatic but attractive and well-constructed music. The other was based on a series of Chickasaw and Choctaw church hymns, even more attractive and definitely in a Native-sounding harmonic style, sung monophonically by the chorus and then picked up by the orchestra in a dark, heavy scoring (e.g. strings and trombones). I like this guy's style.

The other piece on this half was by John Wineglass, who isn't Native American at all, but African American. His Big Sur: The Night Sun does not, he says, utilize Amerind music but was inspired by a spiritual retreat he took at Big Sur. So I guess it's tourist music. Wineglass is best known as a film and TV composer, and he writes in the florid Americana style common there: themes in strings and soft trumpet, backed by piano chords, with swooping harp coming in at the climax; that sort of thing. He did have some of what I gathered were improvised sections for "world percussion" (including the biggest drum ever, 6 feet tall and about 4 wide), some sort of ethnic flute, and an Ohlone-Chumash vocalist named Kanyon Sayers-Roods whose eerie keening was so striking that it suggests my lack of response to other Native American ethnic singers may simply be explained as she's talented and they're not.

The other half of the concert was Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony, a fine, straightforward performance. So tell us: what's that doing on this program, Maestro Morgan? Well, he explained, this short, light, cheerful and cheeky work defied Stalin's expectations for a huge, pompous peroration to celebrate victory in WW2, the more so as it was a Ninth, with all the epic burden that number has carried in symphonies since Beethoven. "Sometimes," Morgan said, "when you have a strongman leader, who thinks he can tell everyone what to do, artists have to punch back." And when the audience erupted into huge applause at this, he said with a grin, "I don't know what you people think I'm referring to." And he concluded, "Think of the Shostakovich Ninth as a work of resistance ... our own little poke in the eye to strongman dictators." So, social relevance here too.

*Since you asked, it's a tribal name meaning "high corncrib", as everything written about him explains.

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