Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 17, 2023

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, "Audacity of Hope"

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA 
January 14, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

Subtitled “Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.,” the third classical concert of the SSO’s 2022-2023 season offered a notably diverse audience a rare program of music and poetry created entirely, and performed in leading roles, by artists of color. 

It opened with a stirring rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a poem by James Weldon Johnson set to music by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, often called the “Black National Anthem,” and vividly arranged for large orchestra by Hale Smith, under the dynamic baton of guest conductor Kevin Scott. Next came Quinn Mason’s spirited 2021 tribute to a musical youth leader colleague, “Rise to the Occasion,” and the US premiere of Scott’s own brief but forceful elegy for civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, “Fannie’s Homecoming,” both in impassioned readings by orchestra and conductor.     

Artisan McCain
A stunning account followed, with soloist Artina McCain, of Florence Price’s 1934 Piano Concerto in D Minor. The first female African-American composer of national stature, much of Price’s music has only been rediscovered in recent decades. McCain’s technical and interpretive command equally showcased the mercurial opening and radiant slow sections and the rousing final juba, an African-American folk dance. The ensemble provided lush, full-blooded support. 

Then came a dramatic reading by charismatic activist and Springfield Poet Laureate Magdalena Gomez of a poem she wrote for this occasion called “The Metaphysics of Memory.” Reflecting on today’s program, she spoke in rhythmic cadences and spontaneous song-and-dance moments which evoked Dr. King’s rhetorical style and showed how music can advance his beloved community. 

A brilliant rendering of Ozie Cargile’s short but powerful 2009 ode to Barack Obama, “The Audacity of Hope,” preceded “dean of African-American composers” William Grant Still’s 1947 fourth symphony. Celebrating, in Still’s words, “the fusion of musical cultures in North America,” its four movements were respectively energetic, tender, whimsical (“with a graceful lilt,” as Still requested), and exuberant in this affectionate performance. 

An encore, Florence Price’s piano etude “The Old Boatman,” arranged for string orchestra by Dana Paul Perna and played with glowing warmth by the ensemble, quietly closed this landmark evening. As heartening as its respect for the past was the audience’s enthusiastic applause for Mason and Cargile, both present, which suggests a strong future for Black traditions in American classical music.