Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony receives the welcome advocacy of Roderick Cox and the Seattle Symphony

United StatesUnited States William Dawson, Glazunov, Bartók: Noah Geller (violin), Seattle Symphony / Roderick Cox (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 21.04.2022. (ZC)

Roderick Cox conducts the Seattle Symphony © James Holt

William DawsonNegro Folk Symphony
Glazunov – Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.82
Bartók – Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, Op.19

What constitutes ‘American’ music? This was a hotly debated topic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One view taken by Antonin Dvořák and others was that an original voice would emerge, influenced by Black and Indigenous musical traditions. Dvořák’s own Symphony No.9 (‘From the New World’) is the most famous example of this view to the extent that it all but eclipsed the work of Black composers from the period, including William Grant Still, Florence Price and William Dawson, who all realized Dvořák’s hopes for American music.

Roderick Cox, a Berlin-based Black American conductor, has championed the works of William Dawson, and his Negro Folk Symphony in particular. Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered it in 1934, with the audience bursting into applause after each movement. Yet even a favorable premiere wasn’t enough to keep the symphony in favor with orchestras. It quickly faded from concert halls but has been revived recently, in part because of pioneering conductors like Cox.

This forgotten masterpiece was at the core of Cox’s latest turn at the podium with the Seattle Symphony.  The work defies the modernist trends of the 1930s with its unabashed romanticism and rich orchestration.  Black folk music suffuses each movement. Cox turned in an impassioned, flowing performance, which benefited from his sculpted phrasing. Also striking was his command of the climaxes: each provided a poignant release, even eliciting an ovation from the audience at the end of the first movement.  But they never worked against the spirituals and folk tunes, and Cox elevated the basic popular music underpinning the piece into high art.

In the second half, concertmaster Noah Geller was the soloist for Alexander Glazunov’s Violin Concerto.  Less known than others, this concerto is a musical missing link of sorts, connecting romantic masters like Tchaikovsky to Soviet era composers such as Shostakovich. The Glazunov is showy and full of bravado, but it also previews changes to come for form and harmonies in the Soviet period. With his poised playing, Geller breathed relevance into the piece, and the performance brimmed with a tonal palette, effortless melodies and a perky conclusion. Geller makes an impressive advocate for underplayed works like the Glazunov and – previously – Hartmann’s Concerto funebre, and I hope he is given more opportunities to present neglected masterpieces to Seattle audiences.

The suite from Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin closed the program. Even in the reduced form of a concert suite, the piece can prove challenging for orchestra and audience. The music is lacerating in effect most of the time: wild, vertiginous arpeggios and glissandos open the work, while thrashing chords and a twisted fugue close it. Here again, Cox maintained absolute focus, ensuring the suite’s intensity didn’t distract from the brilliance of Bartók’s music. He was aided by excellent contributions from the wind and brass principals.

Roderick Cox’s turn at the podium was impressive. Appealing choices in repertoire attest to the young conductor’s wide-ranging musical interests, and his confident leadership helped him succeed in disparate works by Dawson, Glazunov and Bartók. When he returns to Seattle, he will undoubtedly impress once again.

Zach Carstensen

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