Concert Review: Du Bois Orchestra Serves Up a Feast of Music by Black Composers

By Aaron Keebaugh

The performance conveyed the essence of the Du Bois Orchestra’s mission: when played with exuberance, long-neglected and little-played works can generate as much excitement as they do wonder that they were ever overlooked.

Dominique Hoskin conducting the Du Bois Orchestra. Photo: Hilary Scott

For the Du Bois Orchestra, classical music is much more than a highbrow diversion. Presenting works by underrepresented composers alongside traditional repertoire — for nine seasons now — is part of its mission to foster social inclusion. And if you take in one of the group’s performances at the First Church in Cambridge, you might well feel the welcoming shock of the new — brought about through the performance of compositions routinely ignored by Boston’s other leading ensembles. At least that is how I experienced listening to their program last Sunday, which featured music by William Grant Still, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and Jessie Montgomery.

Music by Black composers has finally been gaining traction over the past several years. Yet examples have sprung up only sparingly in concerts around New England. Even William Grant Still, one of the most gifted composers of the American 20th century, is barely heard in a town where he once received part of his musical education. (An oboist, he studied privately with George Chadwick during the Boston tour of Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along.) When Still’s music does grace orchestral programs, as it did last week, it’s typically with his Symphony No. 1, Afro-American.

The first of five symphonies Still composed, the Afro-American Symphony remains popular largely because of its novelty. It was the first symphony by an African American to be premiered by a major US orchestra (the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931). But the piece relays an aspirational and still relevant social message because it reflects the ideas of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose poems serve as epigraphs before each of the composition’s movements. Musically, it dazzles because of its bluesy swagger, melting lyricism, and an almost spiritual yearning that never resorts to sentimentality.

On Sunday, conductor Dominique Hoskin leaned into every supple dramatic turn. The first movement’s theme — based on the 12-bar blues — coursed with a compellingly gentle swing. Oboe solos coiled softly in the introduction, inviting reflection as well as intimating mystery. So did the lyrical second theme, which Hoskin led with soulful conviction.

The energetic ambiance Hoskin created in the Adagio was colorfully offset by the oboe’s plaintive cry. Yet he wove these individual strands together with a firm sense of confidence. The Scherzo moved with free-spirited panache. And the finale swept along with fierce determination — an assertion of aspiration that roiled with mesmerizing, even Sibelian force.

That forceful sympathy also made Sunday’s rare performance of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges’s Violin Concerto in A major (Op. 5, No. 2) a rousing spectacle.

Born Joseph Bologne to an enslaved woman and French plantation owner, Saint-Georges became the consummate Renaissance man: fencer, athlete, violinist, and composer of a wide variety of works. While his 14 violin concertos (like many of his contemporaries’) tend to offer more flair than poetic depth, they are still marvels of compositional stagecraft that invite the soloist to rise above the fray with operatic flourish.

Thomas Lee Cooper, conductor Dominique Hoskin, and the Du Bois Orchestra. Photo: Hilary Scott

Last week, violin soloist Thomas Lee Cooper dispatched the piece’s scales and arpeggios with fervor. He painted his lines with bold colors; his tone tastefully wavered between silvery delicacy and dark, grainy power. When he explored the silkier textures of the second movement, he generated solace through a graceful approach that softened the edges of the composer’s angular melodies.

Still, for all of the violin’s splendor, the orchestra took its time to settle. Lapses in intonation created momentary roughness in the accompaniment. But the orchestra found an equilibrium in the finale, mirroring Cooper’s dynamic dance between light and darkness.

The concert’s opener, Jessica Montgomery’s Starburst, conveyed the same dramatic verve. As cheerful and vivacious as its title implies, Starburst transforms simple gestures into an animated — and at times prickly — dialogue. Hoskin’s direction created a picture rife with festive zest. Phrases rose out from the orchestral texture to frolic in the limelight before fading back into the din. Those moments of antic exhilaration, which occurred throughout the program, conveyed the essence of the Du Bois Orchestra’s mission: they proved that, when played with exuberance, long-neglected and little-played works can generate as much excitement as they do wonder that they were ever overlooked.

Aaron Keebaugh has been a classical music critic in Boston since 2012. His work has been featured in the Musical Times, Corymbus, Boston Classical Review, Early Music America, and BBC Radio 3. A musicologist, he teaches at North Shore Community College in both Danvers and Lynn.

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