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Lakota music gets short shrift in concert meant to celebrate it

Bryan Akipa performs during the Lakota Music Project program at Washington National Cathedral. (Cameron Whitman)

Diversity is a buzzword in orchestras these days, and populations of ethnic minorities must be getting used to string and wind players straining for ways to include them in the supposedly great narrative of Western music. But the Lakota Music Project stands out.

An initiative of the South Dakota Symphony, the project aimed from the start to find a way to collaborate meaningfully and lastingly with the Native American population rather than dropping in for a few concerts with no follow-up. The project has been developing artistic partnerships and friendships between Native American and Western musicians for 15 years. On Monday night, it came to Washington to show its stuff.

At least, it tried.

To their credit, the Post-Classical Ensemble recognized the value of the Lakota Music Project and made a point of presenting it. To their shame, however, the ensemble presented Lakota in the context of exactly the kind of white-male superiority that the project has done such a good job of avoiding. Juxtaposing the music of white composers influenced by Native Americans with the work of the Native Americans themselves — an inherently questionable idea — the PCE’s program put so much emphasis on the white men that it left not enough time for the Native Americans to perform all of the pieces they had prepared.

The Post-Classical Ensemble pursues its offbeat interests with the eagerness and tenacity of a dog going after a favorite ball. One of its pet themes is the composer Antonin Dvorak and his interest in incorporating Native American music into his work. For the group’s mini-festival this fall, Joseph Horowitz, the Post-Classical Ensemble’s executive director, broadened the spotlight to include other “Indianist” composers inspired by Native American themes, particularly Arthur Farwell, an early 20th-century composer who devoted himself to Native American music and culture.

Yet, to focus on white men presenting their own ideas about Native American culture when you have Native American musicians present, and to give the Native Americans short shrift in the process, is inexcusable.

The Lakota Music Project finds common ground through collaboration

Certainly the program was intended in a spirit of inclusion. To open the festival’s first concert, last Wednesday night, Bryan Akipa, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, danced his way down the main aisle of Washington National Cathedral, in full regalia studded with chiming bells.

But both on Wednesday and on Monday, the focus was almost entirely on nonnative composers. On Wednesday, the gifted Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli joined the violinist Netanel Draiblate for a lyrical rendition of the larghetto from Dvorak’s op. 100 violin sonata, followed by Busoni’s solo-piano “Indian Diary No. 1,” which sounded as if Debussy and Liszt had gotten together to parse some Native American themes, and two pieces by Farwell that Farwell later arranged for chorus, and were also given in those versions by the Cathedral’s chamber chorus, Cathedra. After intermission came lengthy pieces by Curt Cacioppo, a capable nonnative composer with a deep interest in Native American traditions.

The Native Americans got a lot less performance time. Akipa, a leading proponent of the cedar flute, a traditional recorder-like instrument, played during both intermissions, focusing on traditional music on Wednesday. On Monday, Akipa focused on his own explorations, including arrangements of traditional hymns cited as “Dakota Air” in the reservations’ missionary hymnals, which sought to reconvert appropriated music into something traditional.

On Wednesday, the evening ended with two evocative pieces by Jerod Tate, a composer and member of the Chickasaw tribe who was a past composer in residence of the Lakota Music Project, including “Shakamaxon,” for string orchestra, in which splintery violin lines rose above the drone of sustained low strings.

Monday’s format was a chamber concert featuring the nine principals of the South Dakota Symphony (a string quartet and a wind quintet), who are key participants in the Lakota Music Project. But, for the bulk of the evening, the audience was treated to Farwell’s “Hako Quartet,” which did little with its musical ideas, and part of a quartet by Cacioppo, who talked at considerable length about Native American traditions before his piece was played. As a result, the concert had been underway for a full 90 minutes before the Lakota Music Project went on.

It was certainly worth the wait. You could feel the air rush back into the room as Delta David Gier, the orchestra’s music director, introduced the works written as part of the project. “Wind on Clear Lake” by Jeffrey Paul, the group’s oboist, was an evocation of the South Dakota landscape, rich with textures to highlight the reedy quality of Akipa’s flute. There followed works and moving comments from both Akipa (whose “Meadowlark” incorporated the bird’s actual song) and Emanuel Black Bear, a vocalist and drummer from the Oglala Lakota tribe, who spoke poignantly about his mother’s death and his lifelong love of music after singing a song he’d written for her, “Guide Me,” arranged by Tate for strings to underlie the aching, craggy beauty of his voice.

The finale was to have been an arrangement of “Amazing Grace” by the group’s current composer in residence, with Black Bear singing and playing his drum, an instrument he’d just told us he loved more than his wife. But, alas, the concert had run up against overtime costs, and the last piece had to be dropped.

There was, however, a post-concert discussion session, for which I did not stay. It seemed to offer the chance to hear more white men talk about the importance of Native American influences — perhaps with the Native Americans getting to interject a word or two about their own traditions.

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