Tuesday, February 19, 2019

SFCV.org: LA Phil Revives Harlem Renaissance for Black History Month

Thomas Wilkins

By Richard S. Ginell

February 19, 2019

Thomas Wilkins can usually be found in L.A. backing various pop and rock acts as principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, whose role in the great outdoors has been marginalized in recent summers. He deserves a better showcase, and over Presidents Day weekend, he got it — two programs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Walt Disney Concert Hall of mostly underperformed music that was related to the Harlem Renaissance.

While  the Phil shouldn’t have to use Black History Month as an excuse to program music by William Grant Still, Duke Ellington, and George Gershwin indoors, we’ll take it and hope that it leads to more performances from this repertoire elsewhere on the regular calendar.


With Still’s Symphony No. 4 (“Autochthonous”), which follows a similar template as his more famous Afro-American Symphony — traditional four-movement symphony with a soulful slow movement and a jaunty Scherzo delivering the strongest jazz influence — we see that Still may have been the most faithful follower of Dvořák’s advice. The Czech composer urged his American counterparts to develop their own classical music from African-American and Native American sources, and Still was only too happy to use both here. Everything cohered in Wilkins’s concept, right to the optimistic chorale at the end. There is a catalogue of about 290 Still pieces in many genres — some with very provocative titles — begging to be played and, again, we shouldn’t have to wait for Black History Month to hear some of them.

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