THE BASICS: Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Assistant Conductor Jaman E. Dunn returned to Rockwell Hall on the Buffalo State College campus on Friday, February 25 to conduct an impressive array of talent in the SPOTLIGHT ON BLACK COMPOSERS program.
The concert experience repeats this Sunday, February 27 at 2:30 p.m. at the Rockwell Hall Performing Arts Center. For tickets, call 716-878-3005 or visit www.buffalostatepac.org or purchase at the door. There is plenty of free parking. My advice is to enter campus using Iroquois Drive at the traffic light on Elmwood. If the terrain immediately behind Rockwell is full, continue a few hundred feet for large lots to the right and left.
THE SHOW: Although the presenting organization is indeed Buffalo Opera Unlimited, SPOTLIGHT ON BLACK COMPOSERS is not an opera. Instead, it is a mixed program of vocals and instrumental solos, string orchestra, full orchestra, ballet dancers and choir. It features soprano Sirgourney Cook and baritone Jaman E. Dunn with piano, orchestra and soloists Madeline Olson (harp), Anna Mattix (English horn) and Inga Yanoski (violin), and pianist Eric Huebner performing works by African-American composers William Grant Still, Margaret Bonds, Ulysses Kay and Adolphus Hailstork. Also on stage was the Mahatammoho Collective, a nine-person dance troupe choreographed by Naila Ansari, who were joined by a thirteen-voice choir.
As you enter the theater you will see an original drawing by David Lightsey by star composer William Grant Still projected and throughout the concert there will be video projections by Brian Milbrand.
Before this concert, which, once again, repeats this Sunday, February 27 at 2:30 a.m. at Rockwell, I had interviewed Maestro Dunn, and you can find out more about the program on this YouTube video.
Having heard Jaman E. Dunn conduct the opera CARMEN in December, I wrote in my review: “From the opening notes of the familiar overture, it was clear there was a new sheriff in town. Dunn got a high quality sound with impressive consistency from the chamber orchestra… Intonation, phrasing, dynamics, it was all there for the whole opera. It was one of the best rehearsed BOU orchestras I have heard…”
It was a small orchestra in December. This February Maestro Dunn has a standard sized orchestra, and the bigger sound was even better. After the show, I asked several musicians who perform regularly for BOU: “What’s his secret sauce?” How does he get such good music out of orchestras? and they told me he’s very clear in his instructions, very passionate and has unique and clever ways of telling musicians what he’s looking for. Well, whatever it is, it works.
The program opened with the great voice of Chicago soprano Sirgourney Cook singing “Golden Days” by William Grant Still beautifully accompanied, in my opinion, by the best classical pianist active in Buffalo, Eric Huebner. (Seen regularly on stage with the BPO at Kleinhans, he is also the pianist of the famous New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and we are lucky to have him in town.)
The last time I heard Sirgourney Cook sing was at Kleinhans in December and I wrote: “She sang at President Barack Obama’s 50th birthday party, she sang at the Grammy tribute to Aretha Franklin, and her singing is also close to the late great Jessye Norman. as you are likely to get.
Nothing has changed in two months. She set the standard for the rest of the evening. By the way, “Golden Days” is, in fact, taken from a COSTASO opera by Still, so, yes, there is some opera. She also sang another Still song “Grief (Weeping Angel)” with piano, a mysterious piece of American Impressionism.
Between these two songs, Jaman E. Dunn came out as a baritone soloist, also accompanied by Huebner, for music by Margaret Bonds titled “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” from a poem by her friend and Harlem Renaissance leader , Langston Hughes. Bonds is also associated with fellow composer Florence Price. In 1931, when Price’s Symphony won first prize and was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in the same competition, Margaret Bonds won first prize in the song category. Marian Anderson was a good friend and always included one of the Bonds songs in her recitals.
Other works on William Grant Still’s program included ‘Mother and Child’ performed by violinist Inag Yanoski with Eric Huebner (a work I had heard last year in an arrangement for chamber orchestra performed by the BPO during their pandemic streaming concerts). At the time I wrote “It’s…as you’d expect from the title, a bit of a lullaby, but as you’d expect from William Grant Still straddling two worlds – classic and popular – it’s a bit jazzy with a nice syncopation. It was inspired by a painting by African-American artist Sargent Johnson, a 1932 work titled “Mother and Child” and you can see it on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art website here.
Also already heard during these BPO pandemic streaming concerts at Kleinhans is Ulysses S. Kay’s haunting ‘Pietà’ featuring another Buffalo treasure, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal English horn player – Anna Mattix.
Incidentally, BPO’s latest CD titled “Light in a Time of Darkness” on their own “Beau Fleuve” label features six works chosen for their emotional depth and spirituality. They were digitally recorded and then broadcast during the pandemic lockdown, from late autumn 2020 to spring 2021, including Ulysses Kay’s Pietà again featuring English horn player Anna Mattix. The CD is available here.
Anna Mattix is in high demand, having just performed with the Buffalo Chamber Players on Thursday, she will perform at the Friends of Vienna concert next month, Sunday March 13, at 3.30pm at Kenmore Methodist Church on Landers Road.
“But wait, there’s more!” At the request of Jaman E. Dunn, BPO Principal Harpist Madeline Olson performed another work by Still entitled “Ennanga” for harp and string orchestra.
Besides the programs they play, Buffalo is fortunate to have the Buffalo Philharmonic in this city because that organization provides a base or “day job” if you will, for extremely talented and very accomplished people who perform at a very high level. Dunn, Huebner, Mattix, Olson are not to be missed.
The first half of the concert ended with a ballet by Still titled “Sahdji” about African royalty, life, love, lust and death. Incredibly choreographed by another Buffalo treasure, Buff State’s Naila Ansari (who also danced), it’s not your leotard and tutus ballet. It’s raw and realistic and yet graceful and ballet at the same time. Trick.
After the intermission there was another work by William Grant Still, his magnificent “Poem for Orchestra”, then we heard Symphony No. 2 by contemporary composer Adolphus Hailstork, born in Rochester in 1941. The piano concerto by Mr. Hailstork was just last week. performed at Kleinhans Music Hall (review here) where Mr. Hailstork was present and took the stage to thunderous applause. I don’t believe the composer was at Rockwell on Friday, but I hope he can come from his home in Virginia Beach to hear this concert on Sunday. I think he would be quite happy.
It is a bold grand symphony with four distinct sections, and makes full use of all the colors of the orchestra, especially the brass and woodwinds.
Unfortunately, due to a combination of schools on winter break, the ongoing pandemic, snow, and recent very cold weather, attendance was down. I hope more people can come on Sunday. So, in conclusion, if you’re a person who says “I don’t like opera”, this is NOT an opera, it’s a showcase of several famous African American composers, performed at a very high level expertise, and I highly recommend this concert, which repeats this Sunday, February 27 at 2:30 p.m. at Rockwell Hall on the Buffalo State Campus.