FLAGELLO: The Passion of Martin Luther King. SCHWANTNER: New Morning for the World ("Daybreak of Freedom"). Raymond Bazemore, bass; Portland Symphonic Choir, Oregon Symphony, James DePreist conducting. Koch 3-7293-2 (CD).
Koch has obviously timed this CD to take advantage of Martin Luther King Day (or Human Rights Day, if you will). For the first time, it pairs pieces whose texts are drawn from the words of the slain civil-rights leader. Each, moreover, proves to be a work of sophistication and substance.
That is especially true of Joseph Schwantner's "New Morning for the World," composed in 1982. Premiered the following year by the Eastman Philharmonia (with Willie Stargell as narrator), it takes Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" as its model - indeed the two were coupled on an all-too-briefly-available Mercury LP from the same forces. The more exotic scoring, however, as well as Schwantner's minimalistic treatment of the music's more militant episodes, gives it a drive and dramatic punch of its own.
Both qualities are to the fore in James DePreist's reading, along with the hymnlike strength the more reflective sections require. Likewise the power of King's words, here very Lincolnesque, and that despite bass Raymond Bazemore's occasionally sing-song narration - an attempt, I would guess, to underline its musical qualities.
Conversely it is the choral sections that emerge the more powerfully in Nicholas Flagello's "The Passion of Martin Luther King," dating from 1968 and here receiving its recorded premiere.
Inspired by the Bach passions (to which the title is an allusion), it boasts writing of remarkable clarity and Italianate warmth - no surprise, given that the composer was the brother of Metropolitan Opera bass Ezio Flagello. One thinks of the striding "Hosanna," the tolling "Miserere" and the moving "Stabat Mater," all affectingly sung by the Portland choir.
The solo sections, however, are in some ways less musical than Schwantner's spoken text, even though they are also sung. Nor do I think King's words as aptly chosen, though I can understand the wish to oppose the nonviolence of his message with the militancy of his cause.
Whatever the reason, Bazemore actually sounds a little hoarse in his final solo, "We've got some difficult days ahead." The conviction is still there, however, along with an introduction in the liner notes by King's widow, Coretta Scott King.
DAWSON: Negro Folk Symphony. ELLINGTON (orch. Henderson): Harlem. STILL. Symphony No. 2 ("Song of a New Race"). Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Neemi Jaervi conducting. Chandos CHAN-9226 (CD).
For the fifth installment in their enterprising American Series, Neemi Jaervi and the Detroit Symphony have again given us a disc devoted to the music of black composers.
That's no problem when it comes to the two major works on this CD, William Dawson's "Negro Folk Symphony" and the Symphony No. 2 of William Grant Still. These are significant essays by any standard and it is hard to believe that this is, as claimed, the first recording of the Still.
I do not find it as vital or as varied a piece as his Symphony No. 1, the "Afro-American," served up by these same forces in Volume 3. But it may be even more appealing melodically, its sometimes jazzy, sometimes folk-derived influences coming together in an orchestral setting that, in something like the Steineresque second movement, rivals the best that Hollywood had to offer.
(Indeed, I found myself thinking on occasion how much the "Roots" score owes to Still - as may parts of "Porgy and Bess," composed around the same time.)
Dawson, by contrast, offers a number of authentic African-American folk melodies filtered through a more European (e.g., Dvorakian) symphonic sensibility.
Begun in 1932 and premiered two years later by Leopold Stokowski, the symphony was revised following Dawson's visit to West Africa in 1952. It is that version Stokowski recorded, for Decca, in 1963, a performance supposedly reissued on CD but which I only know from that original LP.
Even there, it seems to me more strongly built than Jaervi's. But the latter's vigor and excitement cannot be denied, particularly in the energetically sprung first-movement allegro or the exuberance he brings to the finale, based on the songs "O, Le' Me Shine lik' a Mornin' Star" and "Hallelujah, Lord, I Been Down to the Sea."
What he cannot always do, however, is capture the authentic flavor of Duke Ellington's "Harlem," a very different proposition than the same composer's "The River," which filled out that first Still CD.
For while "Harlem" may have been intended for Toscanini - and there is no evidence he ever conducted it - as an instrumental piece, it partakes more of the ethos of the Ellington orchestra than, say, the NBC Symphony. What Jaervi and his Detroiters have given us, however, is about 16 minutes' worth of big-orchestra jazz, which is pleasing and even fun of its kind but is still a long way from the source.
Even so, not a bad bonus.