Saturday, February 17, 2024

concert review: Oakland Symphony

The Oakland Symphony still hasn't gotten past the death of its long-time music director Michael Morgan two and a half years ago. It hasn't hired a new music director; this concert was guest conducted by Kedrick Armstrong, the young leader of an orchestra in Galesburg IL; like Morgan he is Black, and he once worked as Morgan's assistant on a guest-conducting gig, so he knew the man.

And the featured work on this program was the premiere of a work that Morgan commissioned. (Musical compositions can be a long time gestating.) It's a half-hour cantata, basically, on the life of Paul Robeson. One thing that emerged from the pre-concert talk was how few people today, even Blacks, have ever heard of Paul Robeson; even Armstrong hadn't when he was asked to lead this concert, which is why I linked to Robeson's Wikipedia page. But people my age, or Morgan's, though we postdate Robeson's career, have at least picked up resonances and heard his recordings.

The music, basically neo-post-Romantic, was by Carlos Simon, and the libretto, mostly from Robeson's book Here I Stand (which also provided the piece's title) and his public statements, by Dan Harder. It incorporated references to some of Robeson's vocal repertoire: a verse of "Joe Hill," a couple bits of spirituals, and a brief thematic reference - no lyrics, you wouldn't want them - to "Old Man River." The solo part, which mixed singing, speaking, and some in between, was delivered by Morris Robinson, whose range went if anything deeper than Robeson's own, but seemed less powerful or resonant, but that may be due to my sitting in the back of the auditorium beneath the overhang. The text focused on Robeson's political and social faith to help the African American and other suffering peoples (it did not shy from Robeson's use of the now-outdated word "Negro", sometimes using it in melismas); the chorus mostly chimed in, except for a scene taken from Robeson's HUAC hearings where it played the censorious congressmen.

Anyway, an effective piece, and it was paired with two other works which could be packaged as showing the composer as social activist: Joan Tower's Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 6, rushed and angry, and Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, for which Armstrong took the slow and quiet parts of all four movements as slowly and gently as possible, the better to contrast with the fast and loud parts without overloading them. Also an effective performance.

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