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The music of William Dawson was celebrated at a concert by the PostClassical Ensemble on Friday evening.

PostClassical Ensemble devoted three concerts this season to a project of rediscovering the classical music of African-American composers. For the last of them, Friday evening at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Angel Gil-Ordóñez led a program devoted to the music of William Dawson. The event also featured student performers, capping off a week of collaboration with PCE’s professional musicians.

The music started half an hour late, after a long pre-concert conversation with tenor George Shirley, also featured in the programme. Shirley was the first African American to sing a tenor role at the Metropolitan Opera, just one of her many groundbreaking accomplishments. Shirley’s ties to the Washington area include her service as the first black member of the U.S. Army Chorus and her tenure on the faculty of the University of Maryland.

Shirley joined the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Concert Chorale for the overture, William Dawson’s arrangement of the witty “There Is a Balm in Gilead”. Dawson, who was born in Alabama in 1899, studied music at the Tuskegee Institute, the first college run by Booker T. Washington, and then returned there as director of the music school. He wrote his many arrangements of spirituals for the Tuskegee Institute Choir, which he conducted.

The students sang the piece with composure and fervor, well disciplined by their conductor, Monique Spells. All sections contributed equally and with effective balance and intonation, moving at a majestic pace. Shirley himself, now 87, took the solo part with a hesitant but still intense tone quite moving to hear. Another Duke Ellington student, Zephyr Henderson, then read her poem “On My Way,” offering it as a tribute to the doors Shirley had helped open for black artists.

Gil-Ordóñez then led the musicians of the PostClassical Ensemble in the world premiere of the Dawson concert Negro work song, an unpublished orchestral work. Gil-Ordóñez thanked Dawson’s niece, who was in the audience, for allowing PCE to reconstruct the piece from the composer’s original manuscript.

A dark, mesmerizing tune began on trumpet, transitioning to solo cello, then gradually rising into a full orchestral treatment. Befitting the nature of the melody, the room remained dark, plodding along in a steady beat. Towards the end of the work, the opening trumpet motif returned, this time accompanied by dramatic string tremolos.

The group then presented the second performance of Dawson’s Negro folk symphony heard this season. Billed as DC’s premiere, the slightly smaller PCE forces gave a powerful but less brilliant performance than that conducted by James Conlon with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in October. A polished French horn solo opened the first movement (“The Bond of Africa”), on the theme which Dawson identified as the bond “released from a human chain when the first African was taken from the shores of his native land and sent into slavery.”

Dawson also used African-American spirituals prominently in this piece. Gil-Ordóñez carefully tuned the sectional balances to allow the delicate woodwind parts to be heard in the second theme, reworked from the tune of “Oh, My Little Soul Gwine-a Shine”. It is likely, scholars have noted, that the opening “bond” theme is derived from the witty “Hallelujah, Lord, I have gone down into the sea”, which is quoted more directly in the final movement of the work. The full brass echoed over this theme towards the end of the first movement.

The plaintive English horn sets the tone for the second movement (“Hope in the Night”), marked by a pleading, softly sighing insistence. The playful oboe kicked off the contrasting mid-section, which the composer compared to the sound of children playing. Curious conclusion of this movement, a stretched tonic chord in swelling crescendo and decrescendo, bubbling with tension, reinforced by the beat of a tom-tom.

PCE performed the composer’s 1952 revision of the symphony, the version ultimately recorded by Leopold Stokowski, who had premiered the work at Carnegie Hall in 1934. Dawson made the revision after traveling to seven countries in West Africa. l’Ouest, writing that he wanted to infuse the piece with “a rhythmic underpinning strongly inspired by African influences”. In the first movement, the composer added Juba rhythms from dances brought by slaves from the Kongo kingdom to the plantations of South Carolina.

Brass and woodwinds all added capable solos to the brisk third movement, which also quotes the witty “O, Le’ Me Shine, Shine Like a Morning Star!” Pulsating with syncopated rhythms, the finale reaches an exuberant climax.

In his new book Dvořák’s prophecy and the vexed fate of black classical music, PCE executive producer Joseph Horowitz includes Louis Gottschalk as an American composer “inspired by the dark mother lode” of his childhood in the South. Gottschalk has always identified as white, despite his mother being from a Creole family that once lived in Haiti. His European father was, among other things, a slave trader in New Orleans.

PCE musicians joined students from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Orchestra for a brutal rendition of Gottschalk’s two-movement symphony night in the tropics, as reconstructed by Gaylen Hatton. After the first movement, conducted by Gil-Ordóñez, a group of percussionists took center stage for an impromptu introduction to the second movement (“Festa Criolla”), ostensibly the first orchestral samba, brilliantly conducted by Isaac Daniel.

PostClassical Ensemble performs music by Gustav Mahler, including a chamber ensemble arrangement of the Fourth Symphony, 7:30 p.m. April 30. postclassique.com

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