Lively Dallas Symphony pop concert explores black influences in classical music
Well, that was a fun gig.
Pop concerts aren’t usually on my schedule, but the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Friday night schedule wouldn’t have been entirely out of place in a classical series. With guest conductor Thomas Wilkins, the program certainly validated 19th-century Czech composer Antonín Dvorák’s suggestion that black American vernacular music could be an inspiration for concert music to come. And, gosh, the orchestra sounded fabulous throughout.
Black composers of concert music and operas are also getting late attention these days. Among the recent rediscoveries is Florence Price (1887-1953), the first black woman to see a work performed by a major American orchestra (the Chicago).
Prices Dances in the Canebrakes shared Friday’s program with fellow black composer Ulysses Kay and two white composers who have adapted jazz idioms – of black descent – into concert, stage and screen works: George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein .
Joyce Yang, a favorite here since winning silver at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2005, joined Gershwin’s Piano Concerto.
Dances in the Canebrakes was composed as a piano triptych and orchestrated after Price’s death by another black composer, William Grant Still. It’s a brilliant about the imaginary dances of black laborers after hard days of clearing bamboo-like cane to make way for cotton cultivation.
The movements titled “Nimble Feet”, “Tropical Noon” and “Silk Hat and Walking Cane” offer an appealing mix of mostly soft and offbeat music that one might imagine being played by an orchestra of palm trees. Skillfully composed, it arouses interest in hearing Price’s symphonies, concertos and other concert works.
In the Gershwin, Yang once again proved that few musicians enjoy performing as visibly as she does, and few have such an immediate connection to audiences. His first entry into the concerto sounded like an after-hours improvisation in a dark bar still misty with cigarette smoke and alcohol fumes. The effect was spellbinding.
On the recordings, Gershwin’s own pianism was quite lively and professional, but this concerto has long belonged to a concert world with more generous freedom of expression. Yang served up delightful daydreaming, but to outgoing music, she delivered mighty jabs when she wasn’t donning it as brilliantly shimmering as her stunning gold and black sequin dress. Wilkins was the most alert and sympathetic collaborator, even if he sometimes let the orchestra drown out the piano when it shouldn’t have.
Opening the second half of the concert, Kay’s Three Movement Overture Stage set suggested backstage mayhem before the curtain went up, but the jagged beats and loaded textures were put together with virtuosity.
Finally, the Symphonic Dances and “America” of West Side Story reminded us how protean Bernstein was. Alternately swaggering and phantasmagorical, menacing and tender, it remains music of dazzling brilliance.
In a program that could tempt a conductor into ballet excess, Wilkins was a model of graceful restraint, giving the orchestra just what it needed and nothing more, and his spoken commentary was delightful.
Rehearsals at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Meyerson Symphony Center, 2301 Flora St. $36 to $173. 214-849-4376, dallassymphony.org.
CORRECTION, APRIL 23 at 11:20 a.m.: An earlier version of this review misidentified the composer of Theater Set. It was Ulysses Kay, not Hershy Kay.