A wistful horn motif, that trademark of Germanic program symphonies, opens William Levi Dawson's "Negro Folk Symphony" and reappears in a variety of instrumental guises. Though the effort shows on the surface, making the music sound ponderous, Dawson's ideas are vibrant. He gives this motif a life of its own, letting it dance before a shifting backdrop of strings, harp and woodwinds. Transformation is the idea behind this symphony -- transformation of that nothing tune into a grand statement of Dawson's painful recollections (encoded in spiritual and hymn fragments).
For a community orchestra to rescue obscure, difficult music is noble, and conductor Nevilla Ottley occasionally coaxed good solos from the woodwind players when the Takoma Symphony played this piece Sunday at Montgomery Blair High School. But the strings need to improve, both in cohesion and in numbers; there were, for instance, only two cellos.
The orchestra enjoyed easier terrain in James Price Johnson's "Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody" -- performed in William Grant Still's solid arrangement. Although hesitant at times, pianist Victoria Alma Castello gave a sensitive and intelligent reading of her solo.
The symphony became an extension of a jazz quartet in David Baker's Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra. Baker's approach is to explore the similarities between his two ensembles. The result is a congenial, if conventional, jam session. Improvised passages permitted tenor sax soloist Buck Hill to weave a velvety musical texture from staid material.
The afternoon concluded with Raymond Jackson's cogent reading of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." His was not an all-stops-out performance, but one that emphasized clarity of line. Rather than hyping the trivial Gershwin, this performance flattered Gershwin the composer of "serious" music.