Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 16, 2024

Commentary: SSO, "MLK, Jr. Celebration"

Springfield Symphany Hall, Springfield, MA
January 14, 2024
by Julia Hoffman

We appreciate when art lovers read "In the Spotlight." On occasion, individuals write to us directly. Because this patron's praise of SSO's January concert was so exuberant and honest, "In the Spotlight" presents it along with that of our music reviewer Lisa Covi, here.

On January 13, 2024, The City of Firsts, Springfield, MA, experienced a Night of Firsts with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra. Damien Sneed, guest conductor for this evening, presented the world premiere “A Symphonic Homage to the Duke”. A beautiful arrangement commissioned by Springfield Symphony and composed by Sneed featured three Duke Ellington songs. Sneed is multi-talented as a pianist, vocalist, organist, composer, conductor, arranger, producer, and arts educator whose work spans multiple genres. Growing up with Gospel music in Augusta, GA, he refused to be defined by one genre alone and successfully branched out to Classical and Jazz. Springfield reaped the benefit of his leap outside the lines.  

In the Symphony pre-talk, [I urge symphony audiences to attend these free, short lectures] we were introduced to our featured artists; two young men of immense talent. Jason Flowers II from St Paul, MN studied Master of Music in Piano Performance at Manhattan School of Music and Master of Education at Columbia University. He is now a music teacher employed by NYC Department of Education. Teaching science and math in the Bronx, as well as music, is awe-inspiring enough, but his talent at the keyboard is undoubtably where his future lies. Flowers' featured piece, "Yamekra," written by the great jazz pianist James P. Johnson in 1927, pays homage to the Negro settlement on the outskirts of Savannah.

The second featured artist of the night, Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson, The SSO program booklet states, he studied in his hometown of London at the Royal College of Music and now studies for his Master of Music in Clarinet at the Juilliard School, NYC. His piece was a jazz suite for clarinet composed in 1993 by David Baker. Three Ethnic Dances featured as many varied styles; jitterbug, slow drag, and calypso.

Women were not left off the program. In this case, African-American female composers were highlighted. Presented were Florence Price's "Colonial Dance and Concert Overture No.1" based on the spiritual “Sinner Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass.” Additionally, Margaret Bond’s Montgomery's "Variations" was dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

To hear a 74-piece symphony play jazz with such talented featured artists will long be remembered. Congratulations to SSO for inspired programming, for giving showcase to voices less heard, and for providing another level of talent that we’ve not heard before from our beloved Symphony. This was a very special evening. As Damien Sneed said when introducing the two young talents, "Jason Flowers II and Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson are going to be famous, and very soon. But you heard it here First."