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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

Angel Gil-Ordóñez leads the PostClassical Ensemble at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts on March 18. (Gee James/CapitalMediaUSA)
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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.”)

He saw a ‘noble’ future for Black and Indigenous composers. He was wrong.

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.”

From start to finish, PostClassical proved itself an orchestra in fighting shape, with compelling storytellers across its ranks. Not least of all Gil-Ordóñez, who lent the “Work Song” a living, breathing vitality, with the heft and permanence of a monument you regularly pass but only just noticed. From its opening lonely trumpet, it gathers and gains; a lowing cello calls, and the orchestra responds. The eight or so minutes that follow — their harmonic surprises and melodic mementos, their climbing strings and slumping horns — had a time-capsule magic to their unfolding.

The Philadelphia Orchestra premiered “Negro Folk Symphony” in 1934. (It was beloved by Leopold Stokowski.) Significantly, a performance was also broadcast over CBS radio, reaching ears far past the walls of the concert hall. A New York Times review of the premiere notes a stubbornly standing audience “remaining to applaud long and lustily, and to call Mr. Dawson several times back to the stage.”

After Friday’s performance, it’s easy to see why. The “Folk Symphony,” split into three movements, weaves swatches of folk music into a vibrant tapestry of vernaculars. Spirituals such as “Oh M’ Lit’l Soul Gwine-A-Shine” and “Hallelujah, Lord, I Been Down Into the Sea” emerge, reconfigure and reinvent themselves over the course of the work’s onward-and-upward development.

Its spellbinding second movement, from which the program took its title, is one of the most emotionally potent stretches of music I’ve heard this year — its “Trinity” of gongs, its towering harmonic overhangs and its prolonged departure — a bed of strings lifting and lilting like breath, vanishing at the pace of a setting sun.

The evening concluded with an experiment of sorts: a spirited run through Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “La nuit des tropics,” performed by a pile-on of PostClassical Ensemble members and the talented (and amply staffed) DESA student orchestra, with Gil-Ordóñez and DESA Orchestral Director Isaac Daniel splitting duties on the podium. (Daniel doubles as assistant principal, a remarkably effective way to keep one’s orchestra in check.)

Gottschalk’s pianistic chops, natural showmanship and omnivorous musical appetite (informed by the New Orleans-born composer’s Creole heritage, as well as his extensive travels to Cuba and South America) earned him international fame in the mid-19th century. Gottschalk was also something of a maximalist, staging “monster” concerts — a “Tannhäuser” for 14 pianos, for instance, or a “William Tell” overture for 20-plus.

Thus, this mini-monster — which maxed out the DESA stage capacity at 86 — felt like a fitting homage to the full work’s bombastic 1860 performance in Havana, for which Gottschalk assembled nearly 900 players and singers.

But it also felt like an appropriate reminder of why we come to music we’ve never heard in the first place. It helps us reconstruct the past, sure; but ideally, it helps us fine-tune the future.

PostClassical Ensemble’s next performance is a reworking of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 on April 20 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, featuring guest trombonist David Taylor.