A World Premiere Yields to Evergreen Sibelius and Copland

United StatesUnited States Sibelius, Copland, and Hannibal: Laquita Mitchell (soprano), Rodrick Dixon (tenor), Delaware State University Choir, Lincoln University Concert Choir, Morgan State University Choir (J. Donald Dumpson, choral direction), Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 13.11.2015. (BJ)

Sibelius: Finlandia, Op. 26
Copland: Appalachian Spring Suite (1945 version)
Hannibal: One Land, One River, One People (Philadelphia Orchestra commission–world premiere)

The program note suggested that a “sense of country” forms a link between the first two works on this program. There may be something in the thought, but the manner in which that sense is expressed could hardly differ more widely between the Sibelius piece and the Copland one: the brashly patriotic nationalism—one might almost say chauvinism—of Finlandia and the pervasively tender, inward-looking domesticity of Appalachian Spring, with its focus on family and simple faith.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin succeeded admirably in capturing both of these sets of qualities. For my personal taste, the Copland was the gem of the program, and it featured the elegance and polish of orchestral playing that we have come to expect when he is on the podium, with some gently caressing woodwind solos. But the Sibelius had its own rewards to offer: excellent intonation clarifying the often saturated textures, and the brass section in particular contributing dazzling work.

The second half of the concert was devoted to the world premiere of One Land, One River, One People, commissioned by the orchestra from the 67-year-old composer and jazz trumpeter Hannibal. His African Portraits impressed me very favorably when I reviewed it for a Philadelphia paper in 1980. This time around, I was disappointed that his spectacular trumpet-playing was not a part of the instrumental mix.

The composer described the work as “a creation story written with the intent of reminding its listeners of their own divinity.” Beyond observing that there was an amiability about the text, and about the whole vocal and instrumental project, that it would take a critic more curmudgeonly than I to dislike, I don’t think I am qualified to offer a critical judgment on the piece—there is a New-Age sensibility about it that I am constitutionally incapable of responding to. But it was clear that all the large-scale forces involved were giving of their dedicated best, and also that most members of the audience were having a thoroughly good time, and had no problem with the kind of invitations to “whoop” repeatedly and to clap along with music that I, tight-assed Englishman that I am, find embarrassing.

Bernard Jacobson

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