Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 15, 2024

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, "Martin Luther King, Jr. Program"

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
January 13, 2024
by Lisa Covi

It was a cold dark night on January 13 in Springfield's Court Square when Symphony Hall welcomed a large crowd into its warm musical celebration. Guest conductor Damien Sneed and soloists Jason Flowers and Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson played as one with the orchestra to fill our ears and hearts with the pastoral harmonies and dissonances evoking scenes of the American South.

The occasion afforded the opportunity to showcase the talents of current and past Black artists who demonstrated to the diverse audience the contributions, richness, and skill of our African-American orchestral heritage.

The program, dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., featured works by African-American composers. Two symphonic works by Florence Price, originally performed in the 1920’s, opened each half of the program. Her “Colonial Dance” and the “Concert Overture No.1” alternated plaintive melodies with broad pastoral harmonies. Price was the first African American woman to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Price's gift for arousing drama and emotion also led to her success in silent films accompaniments.

Florence Price
Los Angeles Sentinel
Price’s student and friend Margaret Bonds provided the second orchestral work of the evening, “The Montgomery Variations in 6 parts,” also produced a movie-soundtrack quality. The lyricism of each part depicted percussive undertones of suspense, hopeful voices of the horns, and the regal dignity of nonviolent response. This work captured Montgomery, Alabama's response to the mid-1950 bus boycott and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. 

Jason Flowers, an exciting young pianist, performed a remarkable interpretation of James R. Johnson's “Yamekraw,” a musical poem portraying the Savannah Harlem Renaissance artistic community. Inspired by Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue,” critics have assessed this piece as capturing a more authentic sound than Gershwin's work. Sneed impressively coordinated the solo passages with the orchestral syncopation, vividly illustrating the productive creative community.

During intermission, the young man from Amherst Regional High School who won the Senator Edward W. Brooke Young Oratorical Competition spoke eloquently on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. He reminded us of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words, “Of all forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhumane.” 

A British musician, Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson played a lively jazz clarinet solo in “Three Ethnic Dances” by David Baker. His ebullient sound soared between and above the orchestra's, manifesting the jitterbug, slow drag, and calypso. 

Duke Ellington performed in Springfield several times. His spirit returned to Symphony Hall when guest conductor, Damien Sneed, composed and conducted the world premiere of his “Symphonic Homage to the Duke”. This performance capped the evening with the full measure of joyful expression to send the audience out to bravely face the challenges of 2024.