The Georgia Symphony Orchestra presented a concert of all-American music this past Saturday afternoon at Zion Baptist Church in Marietta. The GSO is an example of a “pro-am” community orchestra, which incorporates a minority core of professional musicians, mostly in principal chairs, amid a larger body of amateur players. Saturday’s program touted three world premieres, two of them by metro-area composers. Music Director Michael Alexander conducted most of the concert.
The program opened with “Star Spangled Overture,” from the “American Ballads” suite by the late Morton Gould. Gould was a master of fluid, episodic variation, taking familiar tunes and treating them in a chameleon-like manner, something demonstrated throughout his audience-friendly “American Ballads.” The GSO later played three more of the suite’s six movements to close the first half of the concert: “Amber Waves,” “Memorials” and “Hymnal: We Shall Overcome.”
In between came the world premiere of “Ogeechee” by Atlanta composer Nicole Randall Chamberlain. She is a fairly prolific composer, of flute music in particular — her flute quartet “Tamar” was performed twice in September by Perimeter Flutes. Chamberlain is perhaps best known locally for the children’s opera “Rabbit Tales,” Atlanta Opera’s educational outreach production last year, which she wrote with librettist Madeleine St. Romain.
“Ogeechee” is, unabashedly, a tone poem inspired by Chamberlain’s parents’ home on Ogeechee River marshland near Savannah. The 10-minute, one-movement work portrays morning, afternoon and evening there. Chamberlain even includes some extended instrumental techniques to paint sonic pictures, such as the trumpet players aimlessly blowing through their instruments and pitchless “tongue-flipping” by the trombones, which produces a percussive flapping sound.
The second half opened with the world premiere of “Orchestral Suite” by Grant Harville, the orchestra’s associate conductor and creative director, who also conducted the piece. Like Chamberlain’s, his work has specific extra-musical inspiration, in this case literary: “The Book of the New Sun” by science fiction writer Gene Wolfe. Even so, for the first four movements, Harville takes formal inspirations from Baroque orchestral suites, with the concluding “Brawl” having no such pretenses.
Alexander took the podium again and the concert closed with the world premiere of “Extreme Spirituals” by Erik Lindgren of Middleboro, Massachusetts, about 40 miles south of Beantown on the way to Buzzards Bay. In these, Lindgren attempts to place a group of unadorned traditional African-American spirituals within what he calls the “progressive rock aesthetic” of his band, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic.
Lindgren’s settings sound less “extreme” than simply rigid and artificial. That assessment takes into account the fact that many are accustomed to these tunes either from childhood memories or from the more formalized settings by Burleigh, Whalum, Shaw/Parker, Hogan and the like — not to mention experienced fans of progressive rock from its heyday in the 1970s. While it’s an interesting experiment to try superimposing the genres, in these settings they did not amalgamate well nor did they really ring true for either.
That goes as well for the arrangements from which the orchestral versions are derived, as found on the 2006 “Extreme Spirituals” CD by Lindgren’s Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. Bass baritone Oral Moses, the vocalist for the afternoon’s renditions, was also the vocalist on that recording, and it is worth comparing that with Moses’ own 2003 CD, “Spirituals in Zion,” where a few of the same spirituals appear in their unadorned, unaccompanied vocal form.
Moses has a long, well-established reputation in mainstream classical repertoire, vocal works by black composers and traditional spirituals. A colleague seated next to me, who had never before heard Moses sing, compared his voice to her childhood memories of a performance by William Warfield. Moses has a impressively large, resonant and articulate voice. There were a few moments, however, where Lindgren’s orchestration overwhelmed him. Nevertheless, Moses’ performance was well welcomed by the approving audience.