Akron Symphony Orchestra returns to historical themes with “A New Birth of Freedom”

Arts / Article
AKron Symphony Orchestra. Photo via akronsymphonyorchestra.org

Akron Symphony Orchestra. Photo via akronsymphonyorchestra.org. It’s been a historical year for the Akron Symphony Orchestra, which has lately themed its concerts around important, stirring and poignant events in American life and culture. Last September, ASO performed “O’er the Land of the Free” in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the writing of the national anthem.

The title for the concert came directly from the text of the Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner,” much as the concert this past week, called “A New Birth of Freedom,” came straight from the uplifting words of President Abraham Lincoln in his “Gettysburg Address.”

The April 11 concert centered on being a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the peace accord signed at Appomattox Courthouse, ending the extended battles of the Civil War. The text and other resources used for theatrical purposes during the concert were provided for via funding from a Knight Arts grant.

As maestro Christopher Wilkins announced from the stage during an interlude between musical pieces, this source material, as well as music for the evening, evoked the violence and ultimately peaceful resolution of the Civil War. All that became immediately clear as ASO opened with four spirituals from “A Child of Our Time” by Michael Tippett: “Steal Away,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See, Lord,” “O, By and By,” and “Deep River.” Even though Tippett wrote the work to get at the painful experience of rising Nazism in Europe in another age, Wilkins chose these works for their emotional profundity. Accompanying the orchestra were the Akron Symphony Chorus and four magnificent Akron-area singers: sopranos Dione Parker Bennett and Angeleina Valentine, tenor Nicholas Modney, and baritone Brian Keith Johnson. “Steal Away” was breathtaking. The interaction of orchestra (which never overpowered the singers), the amazing articulation of the ASO chorus, and the full, rich and beautiful voices of the soloists made this important opening section perfectly done. In “Steal Away,” as example, a soprano hovered in descant above the orchestra and voices, blending it all together.

Baritone Johnson has a huge vocal instrument that provided enormous resonance for songs that are all about heightened feeling. Next, there was a dramatic staged performance of Kurt Weill’s “Cry, the Beloved Country.” This piece was performed by the soloists and chorus, a subset of the orchestra that formed a kind of theater or jazz band, members of the Firestone High School Madrigal Singers, narrator Pastor Eugene Norris II, and other local singers who took the form of a chamber choir.

As the narrator told the six-part tale about racial strife in South Africa just before apartheid, the soloists and chorus juxtaposed the plight of the individual hero with the general swell of townspeople and country, until all the musicians hit the emotional highlight of the center song, “Cry, the Beloved Country,” which gets reprised at the end of the work. Musically varied, for the range went from a soprano to later a plaintive ballad (sung masterfully by Dione Parker Bennett), the concert version had the emotional and dramatic arc of a Broadway play (which was, in fact, its origin, as composer Weill’s last work for the stage).

At the concert, there were some microphone issues, cutting out some of the volume for the narrator and one soloist, but generally the effect was captured well. The proof appeared when many audience members stood up to give a standing ovation as the piece ended. After intermission, the ASO chorus, soloists and other singers left the stage to be replaced by the orchestra, narrator Mark Auburn, and poetry reciters Ernest Johnson, Anna Fields, Charles Allgood, Patrick Fields, Jadon Futch and Christopher Humbert from the Firestone High School Choral Department. Together, they performed three works that appeared to be continuously linked: “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d,” Paul Hindemith’s ode to Walt Whitman; John Williams’ “Lincoln” from the recent award-winning movie of the same name; and Aaron Copland’s ever-applauded “Lincoln Portrait.”

The students recited Whitman’s pieces from memory, giving emotional interpretations to the words, after which the orchestra tellingly revealed the musical take on the text provided by the composer. It was clearly in Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” that the audience got to hear and be moved by the power of the spoken word interspersed with music. As the solo speaking voice, Mark Auburn recited with the orchestra skillfully and movingly, employing musical techniques like crescendo and decrescendo; demonstrating the effects of marcato (in the forceful phrasing for “of the people, by the people, and for the people”) and rubato (building up to the line “a new birth of freedom”); and generally displaying the vocal modulations that it generally takes a full chorus to do. His was a quite wonderful performance, and he deserves great praise for it.

It’s nice when the orchestra draws in local talent and involves the community in its productions. It’s equally good to focus on cultural and national events that can be re-contextualized in our modern world. “A New Birth of Freedom” did just that.