October 22-26, 2014, Charleston, SC–Founded by General Manager Lee Pringle, and taking place in various venues throughout the city of Charleston (which now has the good fortune of hosting two major music festivals, the other being the Spoleto), Colour of Music presented a wide array of black classical singers, instrumentalists, and ensembles performing music by composers of the African diaspora, including from the Americas, Caribbean, and Europe, along with familiar works by European classical composers. The festival also offered a number of symposium presentations on Black Classical music.
I was present for a small sampling over two days, including a Chamber Series concert by the Elliot String Quartet, a family ensemble consisting of mother Danielle Weems-Elliot on viola, and her children Brandon, Justine, and Sterling on violin and cello. They began with String Quartet in B-flat major Op. 14 No. 2 by Chevalier du Saint-Georges, a contemporary (and reportedly an influencer) of Mozart. The piece was a fine if not especially groundbreaking exemplar of the classical style, which the Elliot conveyed quite effectively. The program’s second half featured the seductive Ravel String Quartet in a luminous and moving performance–quite remarkable, given the musicians had only one week to learn and prepare this challenging work.
As part of the Ebony & Ivory Recital Series, pianist Mikael Darmanie offered an eclectic mix, beginning with Trevor Watson’s Eurythmy Variations, a work whose coloristic effects revealed the influence of Messiaen. Schumann’s Geist Thema, Janácek’s Sonata 1. X. 1905 “From the Street”, and Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy were played without pause, forming a quasi-suite. Not listed on the program was Darmanie’s own composition, Night and Dreams, that takes Schubert’s Nacht und Traum as a launching point for a dreamlike fantasy that wanders through various classical and jazz styles (Bach and New Orleans, among others).
The biggest events were the Friday and Saturday evening orchestral concerts conducted by festival Music Director Marlon Daniel. The first night opened with The Gathering by Ghanian-American composer Fred Onovwerosuoke. It’s a brief, lively work propelled by rapid and aggressive African rhythms, while oscillating minor thirds and fourths create a delicious sense of danger–all powerfully rendered by Daniel and his orchestra. Next was William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony, a first-rate symphony that masterfully calls upon jazz and blues as structural elements within a traditional European symphonic framework.
The evening’s highlight and crowd pleaser was Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in a concert suite, cleverly arranged by conductor Marlon Daniel. Soprano Roberta Laws and bass Daniel A. Robertson gave moving renditions of the title roles, while tenor Robert A. Mack stole the show with his cocksure and comedic Sportin’ Life. The chorus performed handsomely, although the unsupportive acoustics of Memminger Auditorium made it difficult to discern their words. However, this didn’t diminish the enjoyment of the capacity audience, which offered a standing ovation at the conclusion.
The crowd was noticeably smaller for the second orchestral program, which is too bad as this was the more interesting of the two. The program fairly launched with Nkeiru Okoye’s Voices Shouting Out (2002), with its vibrant, jolting outer sections containing a gorgeously lyrical center. Following was Edmund Thornton Jenkins’ warm-hearted Charlestonia: A Folk Rhapsody (1919). But the centerpiece of the evening was Victor Herbert’s seldom-heard Cello Concerto No. 2, in a stunning performance by the young Sterling Elliott (of the Elliot Quartet). Elliot’s impeccable musicianship, as well as his discernible love for the music won over the audience, which responded with sustained standing applause.
The evening’s second half offered the world-premiere of Trinidadian composer Dominique Legendre’s Le Génie Humain, which suggested a shadowy realm illuminated by flashes of harsh, glinting light. Conductor Daniel capped off the evening with an engaging performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919 version), showing off the orchestra’s prowess (brass and winds, especially) while displaying his deftness with the more serene passages (the lovely Princesses Round Dance was exquisitely done).
Verdi’s Requiem was scheduled for the final day, but alas, I could not attend. Even so, the Colour of Music festival was an enlightening, stimulating, and overall enjoyable event that, given the passion and commitment of the performers and organizers, should be even more so next year.