An Orchestra from Albany Keeps Old-Time Spirituals Alive

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Everything old is new again. David Allan Miller, the music director of the Albany Symphony Orchestra, thinks so. Almost 10 years ago, the conductor was surprised to find that orchestral versions of American spirituals with solo voice were almost nonexistent.

So starting in 2004 Miller began a project to commission 14 composers to write new works that re-imagine this great American genre through a contemporary lens. Eight of the settings will be performed – along with Copland’s Appalachian Spring ballet -- when the Albany Symphony arrives at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night as part of Spring for Music.

The spirituals on the program are by composers of many heritages including Haitian (Daniel Bernard Roumain), Chinese (Bun-Ching Lam), Cuban (Tania Leon) and Jewish (Stephen Dankner). Eclectic is the watchword. Roumain, for instance, took the spiritual "Sinners Please Don't Let This Harvest Pass," and brought it together with the "strings and funky rhythm sections" of soul greats Barry White, Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes. "It's just about how you introduce a character," DBR tells host Elliott Forrest about music as meticulously constructed as an opera:

Other works on the program range from John Harbison's joyful and assured treatment of "Ain't Goin to Study War No Mo'" to Bun-Ching Lam’s mournful "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" (which its apocalyptic outbursts from the orchestra) to Kevin Beavers’s angst-ridden setting of “Deep River.”

“Spirituals Reimagined” was constructed as a way to mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, on April 12, 1861 yet its roots go back over a decade, to when Miller was hired to guest conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. That program was built around Dvorak's "New World" Symphony and the spirituals that influenced it. While scouting around for orchestral settings of spirituals, he discovered that very few that were appealing or compelling. "I decided to invite some of my favorite American composers from varied cultural and ethnic backgrounds each to select his or her favorite spiritual and clothe it in his or her own unique orchestral fabric," he explained.

Along with the Albany Symphony commissions, tonight's program will include George Tsontakis’s Let the River Be Unbroken. The 1994 work was written for the Alexandria Symphony and is inspired by the Potomac River - the dividing line between North and South during the Civil War. Weaving together more than a dozen Civil War songs, it begins with a fiddler in the back out the house who plays as he walks down the aisle.

To close the program, the orchestra will present Copland's complete Appalachian Spring, in the seldom-heard full orchestra version. While this work is a veritable warhorse by the standards of Spring for Music, in this context, one hears Copland's connection to folk melodies, most notably the famous Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts."

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