`Young, Gifted and Black' spotlights unsung talent

Review: BSO's program gives evocative looks at sound pictures drawn by black composers.

May 11, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's ninth annual "Live, Gifted and Black" concert celebrated the extraordinary, absurdly underappreciated reservoir of music by black composers from the past, and the considerable prospects for a young black cellist of the present.

Giving special interest to the program at the Meyerhoff on Tuesday evening was the world premiere of "Mirage, A Fantasy of the Desert," a tone poem written by a distinguished contributor to Baltimore's musical history, A. Jack Thomas.

The first African-American to conduct the BSO (1946), Thomas founded the Aeolian Conservatory, taught at Morgan State University and excelled in classical and jazz circles alike. Although the BSO and National Symphony performed his music during his lifetime, this first hearing for "Mirage" came 38 years after his death.

The score, which forms an aural complement to a poem of the same name written by Thomas in 1941, was recently discovered in the archives of the Peabody Institute. It's an imaginatively orchestrated portrait of a sun-tortured "caravan lost in the desert waste." Above the slow marching beat of the timpani, violins evoke the bleak emptiness of the terrain; a snaky little tune pops up later to suggest an Arabian setting; snappy outbursts from brass and percussion eventually paint an enticing vision of what seems to be a very hoppin' oasis.

The pictorial elements quickly fade in significance -- the piece stands firmly on its own as pure music. And, in this case, it's fun music. Conductor Alexander Mickelthwate seemed to enjoy exploring Thomas' lively sound world; so did the orchestra, which turned in a snazzy performance that had the sizable audience applauding a few times before the end.

"Mirage" was paired with another scenic work, Duke Ellington's "Harlem," which distills the essence of that celebrated neighborhood into a series of terrifically vivid, richly harmonized sound bites. From the opening, muted trumpet call to the celebratory close, the music sings and swings. German-born Mickelthwate seemed to take easily to the idioms of American jazz, leading a performance that crackled nicely. The BSO winds and percussion relished their roles, and there was a lot of bold string playing, too.

Desmond Neysmith, winner of the Sphinx Competition for Black and Latino Instrumentalists, provided evidence of a budding talent as he confidently navigated Edouard Lalo's D minor Cello Concerto. His eloquent phrasing and sweet tone, which became only slightly frayed in the finale, had a chamber music intimacy. That proved especially telling in the second movement, but a wider dynamic range would have helped give the rest of the concerto greater definition and power. Conductor and ensemble accorded the soloist generally solid support.

The evening opened with a portion of a symphony by 19th century, West Indian-born Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, whose adventure-packed life would make a great "Masterpiece Theater" series. If not the last word on fine detail, Mickelthwate's conducting caught the charm of the composer's straightforward style, and other than smeary horns, so did the orchestra.

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