With more of a pop orchestra sound than our hometown CSO or GPMF, Austria’s Bruckner Orchester Linz came to Chicago’s Harris Theater in the first week of Black History Month. A 200 year-old orchestra with 130 members wearing formal attire, they performed under the baton of American-born Dennis Russell Davies.
The program seems to be a nod to Black History Month. The opener was a very floral arrangement by Morton Gould of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess Suite. To this reviewer, the arrangement seemed like Gershwin’s melodies were fighting to break past multiple layers of rococo that hid more than highlighted. Still, it was Gershwin, and it did please.
Then, the excellent Austrian Bass-Baritone Martin Achrainer performed 7 poems made into songs of Symphonische Gesänge by Alexander Zemlinsky —Song from Dixieland (Langston Hughes), Song of the Cotton Packer (Jean Toomer), A Brown Girl Dead (Countee Cullen), Bad Man (Langston Hughes), Disillusion (Langston Hughes), Danse Africaine (Langston Hughes), and Arabesque (Frank Horne). All of these were in German, and with pauses in between that left some of the audience thinking it was time to clap, while others refrained.
Reading these poems in the program book were perhaps the most powerful moments of the evening. Lynchings, children dying, slavery—these were topics that fit a Black History Month performance so well. If only there could have at least been a recitation in English to give more hook to words sung in German!
Following the intermission the orchestra first performed Duke Elliington’s “Suite from Black Brown and Beige”, arranged by Maurice Peress. Here too a rococo flourish feel to this arrangement seemed to rob Ellington’s score of that jazz quality of fresh and sometimes raw, that, at least for this reviewer, is so closely tied to its basic appeal.
The big star of the evening then appeared in colorful African-style finery that seemed to underline her regal presence. This was world-renowned Angélique Kidjo singing Ifè: Three Yorùbá Songs, a piece that Glass explains he composed specifically for his good friend Kidjo’s distinctive voice.
With trademark Glass repetitions in the background, Kidjo’s voice takes off in a complementary melodic line. Then there would be a moment where this seemed to reverse after a brief converge of lines. How fitting that for the encore of this trademark Glass repetitive piece, Kidjo and the orchestra simply did a reprisal of the last song in the composition.
Kidjo, in African finery and inviting song seems to be a compelling advertisement for the delights of travel to Benin. If passport for such travel proves hard to come by, there were several Kidjo CDs for sale in the lobby.
Harris Theater continues its 2016/17 season with more music and dance performances. For more information visit their website at HarrisTheaterChicago.org.