This Black History Month, the National Philharmonic took its first big step towards diversity and inclusion with a special Saturday evening showcase of four black composers in classical music: Wynton Marsalis, Florence Price, George Walker, and William Grant Still.
Maestro Piotr Gajewski started the night by recognizing how white-and male-dominated classical music is, how hard it is for black or brown composers and musicians to break through barriers, and what the National Philharmonic will do to keep the momentum going beyond Saturday’s concert.
He continued with a mini-bio on each composer, discussing tremendous accolades and feats, many of which I would have never learned otherwise. For example, Wynton Marsalis won not one, but two Grammys at 22 — in jazz and classical music. While Florence Price was the first black woman to have a symphonic work performed by a major American orchestra, she also really struggled to make a living in Arkansas. In fact, someone discovered her manuscripts for the Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major in an abandoned house outside Chicago in 2009. Washington, DC’s George Walker was the first black composer to receive the Pulitzer Prize in music. And William Grant Still is still hailed as one of the great American composers of the 20th century, creating more than 150 works, including 8 operas. Gajewski concluded his introduction by encouraging the audience to listen for hints of jazz, blues, and folk music, and return for future concerts.
The night kicked off on a fast note with Marsalis’ energetic, funky “Wild Strumming of Fiddle” from the oratorio “All Rise.” At first, it felt as if we were witnessing the climactic moment of a thriller movie. But just as quickly, the sounds shifted to a more upbeat, happier feeling. At times the various instruments felt disjointed and sporadic — the cello section even stomped their feet at one point — but then everything would speed up and merge as one again.
Melissa White, an internationally-acclaimed American violinist and first-prize laureate in the Sphinx Competition, joined the National Philharmonic as the soloist in Price’s Violin Concerto. White’s playing was absolutely breathtaking. I have no other words for the grace, precision, and warmth she brought to the stage. After the first movement, the entire audience stood applauding her. After a few minutes, Gajewski told the audience jokingly, “but wait there’s more.” The entire piece was so lovely and it seemed like each musician had a connection to the parts they played. White smiled as she counted down to her entrances and played a few games of call and response with other musicians. Overall, Price’s work sounded like what golden hour looks and feels like — the beautiful glow of the last sun rays.
After a brief intermission, the musicians returned to the stage to play one of Walker’s most popular works, “Lyric for Strings.” Originally titled “Lament,” this piece was slower, softer and at times a bit somber. There was an intense longing feeling about this piece that continued on even after the climax.
Gajewski closed out the evening with Still’s Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major, also known as “Afro-American Symphony.” The blues’ influence was quite apparent in this work with the opening theme repeating across the other movements. Still’s work was really fun to listen to and watch, as it included the full orchestra plus harp, banjo, and celeste.
When the evening came to an end, concert goers stood to show their appreciation for putting black composers and musicians front and center.