Musically Melding Two Worlds: Bosque Civic Music Association hosted McLennan Community Orchestra with a captivating concert blending African-American and Norwegian culture
CLIFTON – Throughout history, with all nationalities of immigrants coming to the United States, it is a melting pot of many different and diverse cultures. In Bosque County itself, German, Irish, English and Norwegian heritages intertwined over the decades, with some traditions still honored to this day.
During a special concert June 17, the 40-member strong McLennan Community Orchestra took up all the space between the stage and the first row of seats in the Frazier Performance Hall at the Bosque Arts Center in Clifton. As the guests arrived on the third floor, they were greeted by the cacophony of sound as the musicians tuned their instruments – evidence of what was to come – delightful music completely filling the performance hall.
Hosted by the Bosque Civic Music Association, the concert remarkably united Bosque County’s unique Norwegian heritage with a salute to Juneteenth. Juneteenth, the federal holiday celebrating emancipation from slavery on June 19, 1865 inspired pieces from African-American composers Robert Nathaniel Dett, Florence Price and Duke Ellington. Agathe Backer Grøndahl and Edvard Grieg represented the Norwegian salute. And Bohemian composer Antonín Dvořák formed the bridge between the two.
But the concert began with a piece by rising star in the classical music world, an African-American who grew up in Arlington. With a hip-hop producing father and a gospel-singing mother, composer, conductor and pianist Kevin Day draws inspiration from a diverse musical background. Day’s music often intersects between the worlds of jazz, minimalism, Latin music, fusion, and contemporary classical idioms. The short-but-sweet, energetic piece incorporates quick flourishes and beautiful melodic moments. It opened the “America Strong” Concert by the Fort Worth Symphony at Fort Worth’s Dickie’s Arena on July 4, 2021.
“Because it is uplifting and charged with energy,” then music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya said on choosing Day’s piece. “Lightspeed symbolizes what America is about, which is knowing how to move forward and come together despite our differences.”
And that thought seemed to shine through in MCO director Peter Olson’s selection of pieces for the BCMA concert. Olson founded the MCO in 2020 with the goal of providing orchestral performing opportunities for MCC students and community musicians. Former Clifton High School Art Teacher Rita Huie and her husband Roland were with the orchestra from the beginning – she plays the piccolo, he’s the principal trombone player.
The MCO provides performances free of charge, hoping to expose their community to orchestral repertoire they might otherwise not attend. Composed of a mixture of string – violin, viola, cello and bass – woodwind, brass and percussion, the orchestra typically plays two concerts per MCC semester at MCC. This outing to Clifton was the first for the orchestra.
Extremely expressive and energetic classical pianist Dr. Sharon Bjørndal Lavery performed “Andante quasi Allegretto,” written in 1869 by Norwegian student composer and acclaimed pianist Agathe Backer Grøndahl at the age of 21.
“The piece which mainly revolves around a single short motive which is reworked and expanded throughout the rest of the piece,” Olson said in his program notes. “The originality of this development as well as the virtuosity of the piano solo make the piece worth rediscovering and enjoying today.”
The “Andante” was never published in the composer’s lifetime and the manuscript was lost for many years, until musicologist Camilla Hambro rediscovered the manuscript and did much of the initial scholarly work on the piece. The Neue Berliner Musikzeitung called the piece“an unmistakable originality in the themes,” and “a light formal design and skillful instrumentation.”
Growing up with an affinity for her family’s heritage, Bjørndal Lavery – a native of Clifton, New Jersey – spent the greater part of her doctoral research on Norwegian music. She loves championing the works of both Grøndahl and Grieg. Together with the MCO, she performed the “Andante” in the United States for the first time by March of this year. Grøndahl’s work mirrors the time period called the “Golden Age” of Norwegian music; a time in which her conductor-friend Edvard Grieg also rose to top recognition.
In his introduction to Antonín Dvořák’s “Largo” from Symphony No. 9 in E Minor op.95 (From the New World), Olson explained how Dvořák was invited to come to New York from his homeland Bohemia, to teach at the newly-formed National Conservatory of Music. Because Dvořák masterfully incorporated his native Bohemian folk music in his compositions, the founders of the Conservatory felt was the ideal candidate to help American composers find an American voice in their music, absorbing music of Native Americans and African Americans.
Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony incorporates many Native American and African American elements, including pentatonic melodies, syncopated rhythms, modal tendencies and rhythmic repetition. Due to the inclusion of these “American” idioms, the symphony was named “From the New World.” With the oboe taking the spotlight “Largo” revolves around a spiritual-like melody, now often sung with the text “Goin’ Home.”
With the crowd-pleaser piece “Juba Dance” from In the Bottoms Olson returned to the Juneteenth tribute. It is probably the most characteristic piece by turn-of-the-century composer R. Nathaniel Dett. Majoring in composition and piano at Oberlin in 1908, Dett was the first black person to earn a Bachelor of Music degree. A few years later he received a masters from Eastman, then honorary Doctorates from both Oberlin and Howard University. The fast piece, full of ragtime elements gave Bjørndal Lavery a platform to show her enormous versatility.
With Florence Price’s “Piano Concerto in One Movement,” Olson and the orchestra shifted gears again, playing to Bjørndal Lavery’ strengths. Born in Little Rock, AR, after many challenges and obstacles, Price gained fairly widespread acclaim as the first female African American symphonic composer. She performed as the soloist in the piece’s premier in Chicago in 1934. The manuscript was then lost, and rediscovered in 2008 in boxes found in an abandoned house in Chicago. Without orchestration, composer Trevor Weston was commissioned to reconstruct the concerto’s orchestration in order to revive it. So, while the concerto was written over 100 years ago, it is fairly new to audiences.
Following the practice established by such composers as Liszt and Mendelssohn, although technically in one movement, there are three distinct sections to the piece, played without a break. Called accomplished and quite attractive, there is a constant dialogue between the piano and the orchestra. The first section begins in slow tempo, and continues with a long piano cadenza. The central panel is tender, lyrical and more lightly scored than the opening section. The concerto concludes with a lively jazzy juba, evoking turn-of-the-century vaudeville shows, which the audience clearly loved.
“Throughout the concerto, Price masterfully combines elements of traditional African American folk music and the expectations of a typical piano concerto into a wonderfully original work that deserves attention it has only recently come to receive.”
To complete the Norwegian theme, the audience heard four movements of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, op. 46 – “a work permeated with the Norwegian Spirit” according to Olson. It is arguably the most recognizable and quintessential Norwegian musical piece, and Grieg himself is quoted as saying "I am sure my music has a taste of codfish in it," as he wove Norwegian folk music into his creations, conjuring up images of magnificent fjords with sun-capped mountains under steel blue skies, with red, yellow and white wooden homes clustered in inlets…and trolls lurking around the corner.
Grieg’s Peer Gynt music was written to accompany Henrik Ibsen’s five-act allegorical drama in verse of the downfall and redemption of a Norwegian peasant anti-hero. A founder of the Norwegian nationalist school of music, Grieg had reservations about Ibsen’s irreverent play, and he only reluctantly accepted the invitation to write music for it, but the collaboration was a critical success. Grieg’s music was praised for its lyricism and for the wide range of styles and orchestral effects used to match the variety of the protagonist’s travels.
And if Peer Gynt’s “In The Hall of the Mountain King,” didn’t exhilarate, the amazing concert ended with the swinging orchestral arrangement “Duke Ellington!” by Calvin Custer, which included “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Do Nothin’ ‘till You Hear From Me,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing,)” from the influential jazz pianist, composer and big band leader of the 20th century. With the orchestra switching into Big Band mode, swing it did, with the vigorous and riveting drum solo by Steven Scheifley, bringing the audience to a standing ovation.
BCMA President Kathy Harr mentioned she and other BCMA members attended a concert by the orchestra in March in Waco and asked them to perform locally in the historic setting of the Bosque Arts Center. “I think our community will be inspired by these wonderful musicians and the beautiful music orchestrated specifically for this concert,” Harr said.
The very entertaining and alluring evening of music started with a wine a cheese social and ended on a sweet note with freshly home-baked Krumkakke and Sandbakkel to take home and fill with whipped cream and strawberries – the perfect Norwegian summer delight.
Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS
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