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At ‘Hope in the Night,’ PostClassical Ensemble gives a Black composer an overdue spotlight

At ‘Hope in the Night,’ PostClassical Ensemble gives a Black composer an overdue spotlight

The ensemble teamed up with the Duke Ellington School of the Arts to celebrate neglected 20th-century composer William Levi Dawson

On Friday night, we got taken to school.

This was in a very real sense, as Duke Ellington School of the Arts played host to PostClassical Ensemble’s “Hope in the Night” program, the conclusion of the D.C.-based orchestra’s “Rediscovery and Renewal of Black Classical Music” series, as well as its week-long residency at DESA.

But Friday’s program also served as an evening-length cram session on composer William Levi Dawson (1899-1990). A skilled arranger of spirituals and longtime leader of the Tuskegee Institute Choir, Dawson was also an exquisitely talented composer whose voice fills a conspicuous silence in the story of modern American music. (On this note, PostClassical Executive Producer Joseph Horowitz recently wrote an illuminating study of these divergent traditions in “Dvorak’s Prophecy.”)

In addition to an overdue spotlight on Dawson, the evening also featured an appearance and talk with another towering figure in classical music, no subset required: George Shirley, the first Black tenor to take the stage at the Metropolitan Opera. A recording of his 1961 debut as Ferrando in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” greeted audience members as we took our seats.

Before the concert, Shirley, 87, spoke of growing up in a house more steeped in the Grand Ole Opry than opera, learning music in the public schools of Detroit, rising to become the first Black man to join the U.S. Army Chorus, and honoring the mentors and teachers who led him to the world’s most prestigious stages. (Shirley also wrote the foreword to Horowitz’s book.)

“That’s the way it works,” he said. “The doors that have been closed are always opened by someone on the inside who realizes that the person on the outside belongs on the inside.”

Following the talk, Shirley joined a strong (and audibly popular) Ellington School chorus — led with finesse and attuned attention by Monique Spells — through Dawson’s deftly tinted arrangement of “There is a Balm in Gilead,” which lent the spiritual a fresh gleam. Shirley still has a voice that hits the back of the hall, its fine traces of gravel like the reeded edge of a medal.

From there, PCE Music Director Angel Gil-Ordóñez and his 58 players went deep into Dawson: the world premiere of the composer’s “Negro Work Song,” as well as the D.C. premiere of his overlooked 1934 landmark, “Negro Folk Symphony.”….. [continued]

Click here for full article. (Washington Post)

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