Lenape melodies meld with violins

Posted: May 20, 2010

The lower-pressure circumstances of Delaware County Community College agreed with the Philadelphia Classical Symphony in a Tuesday tryout concert showcasing the newly composed Wissahickon Scenes, in which Maurice Wright shows how Lenape-tribe melodies and the traditional violin concerto can mix.

A rehearsal or two from now, the piece will be heard in a larger program at 8 p.m. Friday at Church of the Holy Trinity. As of Tuesday, though, it was well on its way, thanks partly to violin soloist Hirono Oka, in an intermissionless all-American evening with the relaxed sense of fun that music director Karl Middleman strives for but sometimes loses in his more sprawling programs.

Wright, a longtime fixture on the Temple University faculty, has the sort of solidity that allows him to take on such a deceptively daunting project as Wissahickon Scenes. Native American melodies aren't unknown in classical music - Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 has them, but in highly massaged form. Enlightened notions of ethnic respect demand something closer to the source, which can lead to an aesthetic collision: Native American art is unmediated by the Greek classicism underlying Euro-based art; thus, the music lacks symmetry and tonal centers. It can seem randomly made up on the spot.

Not true, of course - a point underscored by the American Philosophical Society, which made Lenape field recordings available to Wright and is also holding a "Native American Voices" conference this week in Philadelphia. Still, Native American melodies also have a lot of repeated notes that don't meld well with Euro-based, goal-oriented functional harmony. Wright's solution was aesthetic coexistence; it felt fairly natural in our post-postmodern age, while also maintaining a contrast suggestive of the different universe Native Americans inhabited.

The three movements of Wissahickon Scenes had extramusical significance: The first was full of pleasure dances, the second the infamous Trail of Tears along which the defeated tribes were pushed west, and the third embodying the culture's spirituality.

Fueled by considerable inner impetus, the piece makes a good case for itself, with second and third movements that are particularly entrancing. "Trail of Tears" avoids cliched operatic pathos with a cumulative impact from numbing, plodding rhythms and gray string coloration. In the third movement, Wright gave the violin soloist a traditionally spectacular cadenza, but also incorporated a field recording of a Native American voice on tape in a melody that's said to be a prayer. Such spirituality is reflected in Wright's music not with anything typically beatific, but with inner steadiness that no doubt helped the tribe to emotionally survive genocide.

The rest of the program was inviting, with welcome representation of David Diamond's 1944 Rounds for String Orchestra and selections from Mark O'Connor's Strings and Threads. The latter effectively enshrines the American fiddle tradition, with a sympathetic exponent in concertmaster Jason DePue. Yes, he's the brother of Zach DePue of the fast-fiddling Time for Three. Such talent can run in the family.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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