Friday, May 6, 2022

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

This week's concert had a similar layout to last week's concert: guest conductor, curtain-raiser by a living composer, concerto, and a standard-repertoire symphony.

The conductor, not a newcomer here, but new to me, is Xian Zhang, music director of the New Jersey Symphony, formerly in Sioux City, originally from Beijing. Conductors get around.

The key piece was the concerto, the Piano Concerto by the now-renowned African-American, Florence Price. Soloist was Aaron Diehl, whom I heard in the marathon Philip Glass etudes concert a few years back.

Price packs three condensed movements of material in one nominal movement. The orchestral music is typical stuff for her, but the piano varies. The opening was a lot of Lisztian flourishes - banging chords, runs up and down the keyboard - played mostly separated from whatever the orchestra was doing. The slow middle part had the piano accompanying a spiritual-like oboe solo in the manner of the salon music of Price's youth. And the finale, a juba dance - a form Price was very fond of - came out in the piano a little like ragtime.

The opener was Primal Message by Nokuthula Endo Ngwenyama, an American composer whose bio describes her as "of Zimbabwean-Japanese parentage," which suggests that she's not of traditional African-American background. Nevertheless, her piece, which is for strings lightly sprinkled with percussion, sounded like fragmented bits of spirituals.

All this put Dvorak's "New World" Symphony into a different context. Dvorak came to the US in the 1890s on the strength of his brilliant incorporation of his native Czech folk elements into his concert music: promoters hoped he could teach American composers to do the same thing. At a time when white American music - at least that available to Dvorak - was still mostly European unseasoned into naturalization, Dvorak naturally concluded that the distinctive American music was Black spirituals and American Indian music, and he incorporated those styles into this virtuoso "tourist" symphony. The melody he wrote for his slow movement was such a perfect replica of spiritual style that it's been adapted as one.

The program notes say that most white musicians disagreed with Dvorak's findings, but they didn't, not really. His symphony was widely acclaimed, and many American composers took up his suggestion. The problem is that they were mostly WASPs from Boston. Black spirituals were no more native to them than to Dvorak, and they didn't have his talent for assimilating alien styles. It wasn't until some 40 years later, when white American music had evolved, that much younger composers like Aaron Copland and Roy Harris developed a distinctive white American style quite different from this.

Dvorak did have some Black pupils, but they didn't write large-scale concert pieces. It was up to the in-between generation of Black composers like Florence Price, who was a child at the time of Dvorak's visit, to write in the spirit that Dvorak hoped to see.

So Zhang conducted the "New World" with rhythmic vigor and with motifs that popped out like little crystalline jewels. The brass opening theme of the finale was particularly crisp. Good concert.

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