Friday, April 20, 2012

Washington Times: NSO Concert "was designed to frame the world premiere of William C. Banfield’s 'Symphony No. 10: Affirmations for a New World.'”

[Bill Banfield; Thomas Wilkins conducts “Sweet Honey and the Rock” and National Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Scott Suchman)]

April 17, 2012
Terry Ponick
WASHINGTON, April 15, 2012 – Last weekend’s National Symphony Orchestra concert at the Kennedy Center was, as the old Monty Python troupe used to say, something “completely different.” Neither a pop concert nor standard symphonic, Beethoven dominated fare, the entire concert, staged on Friday and Saturday evenings only, was designed to frame the world premiere of William C. Banfield’s “Symphony No. 10: Affirmations for a New World.”

An unusual collaboration of the composer and the popular à cappella ensemble “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” the new symphony has its roots in the rise of Barack Obama and celebrates, in its own way, the successful conclusion of a very long and very troubled journey of a people who have broken through impossible barriers at last.

In addition to featuring the singing (and the poetry) of Sweet Honey in the Rock, Mr. Banfield’s symphony also incorporated work for a large chorus, whose voices were supplied for this world premiere by one of America’s premiere choral ensembles: Maryland’s renowned Morgan State University Choir, currently under the direction of Eric Conway.

Mr. Banfield’s symphony is constructed in roughly the conventional four movement format—the exception being a two-part movement yoked together by a single, sustained note as its mood begins to change.

Each of the symphony’s four (or five) movements is built, in turn, around jazzy, freeform poems created by each of Sweet Honey’s five singing members. The music is tonal, engaging, and tastefully scored; the poetry—ranging from elegy to gospel and nearly to hip-hop—is rhythmic, passionate, and sincere; and the composition’s overall effect is indeed one of affirmation.

The problem, though, is one that’s not exactly uncommon in 20th and 21st century works of art, whether written, painted, sculpted, or scored. Both the symphony, and the poems upon which it is based, aspire to make a Big Important Statement. In so doing, all of the above tends to verge on the cliché, mistaking a grand pronouncement for a profound one. Indeed, Sweet Honey’s poetry seems to have been substantially revised and/or adapted from the verse that appeared in the printed program. What was actually sung was a considerably more refined, tightened, and shortened version of what appeared to be the original verses.

Taken as a whole, last weekend’s concerts proved an unusual plus for this NSO season. Audiences were treated to something old—including a couple of war horses paired with some new ones that deserve to be heard more often—and to something new—Mr. Banfield’s symphony, created with the assistance of the amazingly talented Sweet Honey in the Rock aided and abetted by the tightly crafted, wonderful harmonies added by the Morgan State University Choir.

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