Saturday’s concert promised something just plain fun. And to emphasize the difference, the evening started with not your usual pre-concert lecture, but the stage actor Scott Nunnally in character as Homestead Grays/Pittsburgh Crawfords ballplayer Josh Gibson (Wikipedia). The format was a Q&A session with Josh Gibson, one of the best power hitters of the Negro leagues. And we were given the impression of talking to a player who loved playing the game, and was proud of his work. There was some teasing about some other contemporary players like Pittsburgh favorite Satchel Paige who played with the Pittsburgh Crawfords. It was fun and educational listening to him, and he handled the question about segregation of the negro leagues like a proud man. And his last request, that we remember that he "loves baseball, loves his wife, and loves his friends" is well taken.
As the concert started, it was disconcerting noticing the thinness of the program notes. Especially since there was a world premiere on the program, some conductor or composer notes would have been nice.
The first half was dominated by a set of pairings.
The first pair was a traditional "My Lord, What a Morning" baritone solo by Nmon Ford and "My Lord, What a Mourning" Martin Luther King Jr. Eulogy by Hailstork. The first piece featured a strong voice, looking toward a new day where the world is going to change. Then as the Hailstork piece started with violins almost weeping, then alternating with periods of cacophony and periods of soulful searching, nicely mirroring the actual reactions of Americans following the assassination.
The next were a series of pairings of selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Duke Ellington big band arrangements. As it starts out, it just sounds like a Tchaikovsky and you have images of dancers in your head. Then the big band piece begins. And from Daniel Meyer on the podium throughout the audience, you could see the music. Meyer almost dancing on the podium to the head nodding throughout the audience. And the second pairing definitely had the audiences attention for both the classical arrangement in anticipation of the big band. And both were better for it as the energy level in the hall just increased.
The second half was dominated by the world premier of Pastime by Richard Danielpour in five movements. First the Prologue talking about baseball in its purity, and the Negro leagues. Second was Josh Gibson. This movement had an edge to it, leading up to his early death at the end of the movement with the motif of the pace of pall bearers carrying a casket. It was a different, more angry interpretation than Sam Nunally did earlier that evening. Third movement was Blackjack, Jackie Robinson. Danielpour directly addresses the curses and abuse that Jackie faced in the first year in an integrated major leagues, but also his speed, the cheers of blacks who were so excited to see him succeed in the major leagues. Jackie’s tone was one of remembrance, of someone looking back on the times fondly, even with the ugliness. The fourth movement was Henry Aaron. This movement was loud, fast and strong, compared to the more reflective Jackie Robinson. The fifth and final movement was the Epilogue. And like the first, it was about the essential purity of the game, describing the ball, the bases and the fields. With strains of The Star-Spangled Banner woven throughout the movement, and unmistakable at the end.
The concert ended with the anthem "Lift Ev’ry Voice." And just like the opening of the Mellon Grand Classic season, the audience sang it with enthusiasm that anyone who was sang the national anthem at the first Grand Classic concert of the season could appreciate.
This was a different program than the usual Grand Classic concert that I go to. My girlfriend and her musicologist seat neighbor may be able to unlock musical theory concepts, but about all I can do is observe that is different, maybe even less complex. But the historian (where I work, pretty much everyone can at least pretend to be an amateur historian) this was a treat. To look at a historical subject through multiple media, through acting, song and music. To see the different interpretations and not just the raw facts, but both the feelings of anger (which these days seems to be a popular emotion) but also of the pride of people who were subjugated, that they can confront injustice with dignity and pride in their ability that did not need affirmation. And my respect for the subject, as well as the artists involved, just goes up.
And it was a different audience, with a different type of energy. Polite for Beethoven. Appreciation of Tchaikovsky, then realizing how the Tchaikovsky and the Duke Ellington pieces fit, coming alive. Hearing the applause, and yes, even between movements. Seeing heads nod in beat and bodies move. Even one guy shouting his appreciation during the applause. If Greg Sandow (Wall Street Journal music critic and frequent PSO visitor) was here, he would have smiled. I did. I hope it was an education all around. I come away feeling much like I did after a chamber concert earlier this month, an art that has aspirations of being a creative media has nothing to say and ultimately dies if it relies on the creativity of past masters. And to be able to speak to events and situations in the here and now justifies an arts claim to speak to the human condition. And like showing how Duke Ellington connected with a Tchaikovsky, it can speak to the human condition in the present and connect it to the past.