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Festivities surrounding Jamestown’s 400th anniversary drew Queen Elizabeth II and President George W. Bush to the former colony.
Given the tepid interest each has shown the arts, however, it was no surprise that neither attended the principal musical event, an open-air joint concert by the Richmond and Virginia symphony orchestras.
Some prospective listeners might have found intimidating a programme that included, among other works, four world premieres. But the organisers’ decision to embrace the new seemed to resonate with the spirit of the Jamestown adventure.
This was no occasion for thorny modernism. John Corigliano’s reflective Jamestown Hymn juxtaposes stately melody from the strings with subdued figuration and gentle fanfares from the wind to form an understated tribute to the colony.
More arresting was Jennifer Higdon’s aggressive Spirit, which in its brass and percussion scoring emphasised the mettle of the early settlers. In this vivid piece, assertive utterances from the brass dart out from every direction, overlapping one another in phrases of varied lengths and rhythmic patterns.
Adolphus Hailstork’s Settlements interestingly follows a languid flute solo evocative of a tranquil pre-European America with fanfares heralding the English arrival. In keeping with history, the fanfares develop into pulsating, agitated, full-bodied orchestral textures, and little more is heard from the flute.
Similarly, John Duffy’s Indian Spirits takes a supposed Indian musical idiom as its starting point. In actuality, as Dvorak recognised, the contribution of black Americans represented more fertile material for reworking by serious composers. The present context allowed the melodies of his New World Symphony to be appreciated from a new perspective, one seconded by the vibrant reading of the Virginia orchestra’s accomplished conductor JoAnn Falletta, who shared conducting responsibilities with Richmond’s Mark Russell Smith. Unfortunately, the much-hyped amalgamation of the two orchestras was undermined by crude amplification for the outdoor acoustic.
Time will tell whether the new works, which ranged in length from four (Corigliano) to seven (Hailstork) minutes rise above the status of pièces d’occasion, or fall into the oblivion of Wagner’s American Centennial March (1876), written for another anniversary. In any case, they served their current function engagingly.