PHILADELPHIA — Before the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Verizon Hall concert Feb. 3, music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin addressed the crowd, thanking attendees, soloists, the two living composers there to witness commissioned world premieres, and — above all — the orchestra’s tireless players. The conductor voiced great excitement at the all-American program with “amplifying voices not always heard” as a theme. He and the assembled forces then proceeded to justify that excitement, in terms of the repertoire and and its execution.
First came Matthew Aucoin’s Suite from Eurydice, the opera premiered in Los Angeles in 2020 and heard at the Metropolitan Opera this season. One of Aucoin’s strengths here is his virtuosic orchestration. It proved thrilling to hear — and watch — the orchestral sections and soloists negotiate it onstage, as opposed to just experiencing their work emanating from the pit. Nézet-Séguin’s tendency when enthused to overwhelm singers onstage did little to mitigate a problem Eurydice revealed at the Met: Aucoin’s less-than-considerate tessitura and orchestration for his heroine and for Orpheus’countertenor Double ( though this proved far less a problem when John Holiday reclaimed the role he created from Jakub Józef Orliński). Here on the concert stage, the conductor showed sovereign balance, keenly deploying his glistening, prepared forces.
Aucoin terms the Suite a “condensation” of the opera, and it moves among four illustrative sections without a break. The opera’s score wears its allusiveness on its sleeve. Very soon into the opening evocation of the Underworld, the River of Forgetfulness paradoxically makes the listener recall Peter Grimes’ Four Sea Interludes, and we take it from there past a veritable Music 101 class of gestures and effects offered in a deliberate and most effective way. Bartók and Stravinsky figure prominently in the mix. Again, the writing shows a keen knowledge of instrumental possibilities. The composer evidently told Nézet-Séguin that he crafted an extended, affecting clarinet solo — representing the sorrowing widower Orpheus still above ground — with Philadelphia’s treasured Ricardo Moralès in mind. Moralès delivered, as did, in their turns, principal cellist Hai-Ye Ni and other colleagues. This electric performance garnered Nézet-Séguin, the orchestra, and the 31-year-old composer an excited ovation.
To judge from conversations I overheard in the lobby and audience at Verizon, after a 2020 Porgy and Bess excerpts concert here, plus the last few seasons’ Met successes as Puccini’s Mimì, Bess, and in Terence Blanchard ‘s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, soprano Angel Blue has definitely become a name to draw in an audience. In the event, she justified her reputation though her ravishing vocalism, communicative ardor, and gracious presence.
Blue definitely staked a claim on Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Samuel Barber’s lush setting of a slightly reworked version of prose by Tennessean James Agee (1909-1955) that eventually furnished the prologue to his posthumous autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family (1957). Program notes described “Barber’s dream-like depiction of the world through the eyes of a child,” but the text and its emotional realization are not all from a six-year-old’s point of view. There’s a recollecting adult consciousness there, giving voice to some retroactive brooding sentiments (the prayer for his relatives’ easeful “taking away” and the final line’s mysterious, prescient sense that these beloved people “will not, not now, not ever… tell me who I am”) and deploying some markedly adult vocabulary. Is it to indulge my own nostalgia for a time of family comfort and summertime “lying on lawns” to recall that getting to know Knoxville as a tween sent me to that cultural artifact a dictionary to look up “aestival” and “sterterous”? West Virginia’s Eleanor Steber premiered the work in 1948, and I was listening to her superb 1950 studio account under William Strickland.
Agee’s text evokes a world of relative material comfort (artists and musicians can “live at home”) in which the White South’s Walter Scott-fueled sense of inherent aristocracy still prevailed: “the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horseman.” Yet Black sopranos made two of Knoxville‘s most distinguished recordings: longtime Barber collaborator Leontyne Price (who sang the premieres of his Hermit Songs and Anthony and Cleopatra) with Thomas Schippers, and Roberta Alexander with Edo de Waart — and others, including Kathleen Battle, Measha Brueggergosman, and Barbara Hendricks, have taped estimable versions. A distinguished Black soprano once told me, “My mother might not have been allowed in that house’s front door, but I know those people, those porches and that summer evening.” This week, an eminent Québecoise soprano — a Knoxville veteran and and fan of Blue’s — said, “That is all of our childhoods.” But those perceptions may be generational and/or East Coast geographical: Barber’s fellow Curtis grad, the great lyric soprano Benita Valente, who grew up on a farm in the California desert, told an interviewer she found Knoxville — often urged on her — simply alien.
At any rate, Blue vocalized it with warmth, technical aplomb, and unfailingly beautiful tone, mastering Barber’s demands for dynamic control. Her clear diction put the words over well, except in the near-impossible challenge — at least in live performance in a large venue — of the strenuously accompanied “streetcar” interlude. She may augment that sense of melancholy mixed in with the already palpable and winning fond remembrance as she makes Knoxville (deservedly) a flagship offering in her concert repertory. It’s already a lovely performance.
The second world premiere — from composer-flutist Valerie Coleman, founder of Imani Winds — made a fine, apt pairing with the Barber. A powerful setting of a text by veteran author (and Philadelphia resident) Sonia Sanchez, This Is Not a Small Voice evokes and glories in the unleashing of urban Black cultural potential (“a passion for kissing learning on its face… This is a love colored with iron and lace”). Coleman’s urgent writing for the violins stood out. The vocal line, considerate but not unchallenging, also incorporates melisma, vocalise, and humming. Early in the piece the singer calls out the first three of six cited Black childrens’ names (“LaTanya, Kadesha, Shaniqua”) in the declarative on-pitch parlando familiar from memorial protests in the BLM era, but here used in celebration. Again, Blue delivered with keen tonal focus, radiant timbre, and expressive diction mixed with joy. The crowd acclaimed Blue and Coleman, who touchingly brought her daughter, Lisa Page, onstage.
The highly accomplished music of Arkansas-born Florence Price (1887-1953) will continue to figure prominently in the salutary replenishment of the (so-called) canon. In June 1933, Price’s first of four symphonies became the first symphony by a Black woman to be performed by a major American orchestra. German-born Frederick Stock premiered it with the Chicago Symphony — neither the first nor the last time that musicians not from the United States proved willing to go beyond Jim Crow-era strictures on programming and casting. Philadelphia had another reminder of this In January when Opera Philadelphia’s concert Oedipus Rex, largely cast with artists of color, unearthed the fact that Leopold Stokowski had deployed prominent Black actor Wayland Rudd (1900-52) as the Narrator in the Stravinsky work’s 1931 American stage premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Antonin Dvořák, a major and pioneering figure in the acknowledgement and encouragement of the Black contribution to American music, clearly stands among Price’s inspirations in this symphony. In a move rather anticipating Aucoin’s procedure, she “samples” a theme from the Czech composer’s New World Symphony right off the bat. Particularly in the splendid, fast-flowing first and fourth movements, Price’s long supply of melody and her ability to transition smoothly among contrasting statements also evoke thoughts of Dvořák.
The second movement, marked “Largo, maestoso,” achieves a hymnic tone by deploying a repeated (maybe a few times too often) and striking four-part brass figure. It’s as distinctively American and of its time as anything by her contemporary Virgil Thomson. Then in the third movement Price unleashes what was to be a trademark: a syncopated Juba Dance, a jubilantly stomping African-American form into the texture of which she folds a variety of drums and a wind whistle. The deft wind writing is noteworthy throughout. The orchestra’s bravura performance — and Price’s skill — brought whoops from the audience after the first movement and a huge final ovation. From this dazzling showing, one could well understand why Deutsche Grammophon’s recording of Price’s First and Third Symphonies with these forces is a 2022 Grammy nominee for Best Orchestral Performance.