The search for American treasure
Michael Morgan took the Oakland East Bay Symphony for a fishing expedition Friday night, Feb. 26, searching out American idioms in a program titled “Diverse views of America.”
Morgan put the program together to highlight his new crossover commissioning project, which pairs four composers of popular music with classical mentors to encourage orchestral works reflecting everyday vernacular. It is an ambitious under-taking that hopes to bring fresh blood to an art that can be both expensive and rarified.
The first composer, Rebeca Mauleón, has racked up impressive honors in the Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz worlds, and her Suite Afro-Cubano quoted well-known phrases. But having the violinists shout, “Mamba!” or lay down bows to do palmas turned innovation into kitsch. Despite some lovely textures—harp, flute and xylophone—and an impressive piano cadenza played by Mauleón, the material often lacked cohesion. Perhaps its wide range of sampling was over-ambitious, or perhaps it was just the bad luck of following Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2. In that piece, which filled the first half of the program, Ives’ orchestral fluidity highlights the difficulty in applying orchestration to jazz structure.
And the audience reaction? Wildly enthusiastic, with many standing to cheer Mauleón’s effort. And indeed it was energetic, after Ives’ over-long look at small-town Connecticut folk material.
Landing the big one.
The evening was made memorable by Duke Ellington’s Harlem, an orchestral suite that likewise quoted popular genres, but did it with stunning mastery and assurance. Toscanini originally asked Ellington to write a suite for orchestra, but was too ill to conduct. Orchestrated by Luther Henderson, it eventually debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1955.
A lone trumpet wailed, full of sauce and completely riveting. We knew that a gauntlet had been thrown down, just as Gershwin had thirty years earlier in his electric clarinet opening to Rhapsody in Blue. William Harvey muted his trumpet for a “waa-aah” that stepped down a minor third, a growled brass vocalization of the word “Harlem.”
The orchestra swelled, backed by five saxes and a full drum kit. This was serious musicianship, serious composing, and completely delightful. Ellington wrote of the suite that it celebrated not only the jazz clubs of Harlem but also its many churches, and there is a sense of reverence mixed in with the dinka-dink of cowbell and slinky bite of brushed snare.
Along with Harvey on trumpet, Diane Maltester supplied an insouciant clarinet solo. Bongo and shakere filled out the percussion section, and a drum solo grabbed the house, before complex brass chords flared for the finale.
While Ellington’s concerto is timeless, Morgan’s crucible is helping current popular American music make the leap to orchestral.
This article originally appeared in the Piedmont Post.
The Oakland Symphony returns to the Paramount Friday March 19 at 8 p.m. and Sunday March 21 at 2 p.m. for a very different—but exhilarating—ride. Buster Keaton’s classic silent movie, “The General,” will be screened with organ accompaniment by Christoph Bull. Afterwards, the full orchestra joins for Camille Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3, the “Organ Symphony.” Complete information and tickets is available at www.oebs.org.