Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

Impeccable, nuanced, flat-out contagious: Aniello Desiderio and William Dawson’s ‘Negro Folk Symphony’

Triple delight with two guitar concertos and a big symphonic number at Oregon Symphony concert.

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Two terrific guitar pieces and a thrilling symphonic work combined for a triple-decker treat from the Oregon Symphony at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on February 5. For the first half of the program, guest artist Aniello Desiderio teamed up with the orchestra under David Danzmayr to dazzle the audience with works by Leo Brouwer and Joaquin Rodrigo. For the second half, the orchestra unleashed an awe-inspiring performance of William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, making the concert one of the best in Danzmayr’s first full season as music director.

The concert marked Desiderio’s debut with the orchestra, and it amply showed off his amazing talent. The 51-year-old Italian virtuoso, winner of multiple international competitions, kicked off the evening with Brouwer’s Tres Danzas Concertantes. The piece has added significance for Desiderio, because it was Brouwer who became his mentor after Desiderio at age 16 won the Festival Internacional de Guitarra in Havana, Cuba.

Accompanied by a chamber ensemble of strings, Desiderio gave a mesmerizing account of the Brouwer concerto. The opening salvo offered eye-popping, fleet fingerwork with melodic threads that wove back and forth between the soloist and his colleagues. Delicate cadenzas and an elegant tapestry with concertmaster Sarah Kwak and other principals were high points of the second. The third contained brief flamenco-like forays, intricate exchanges with the orchestra, a placid interlude, and a final volley of virtuosity that brought the piece to an invigorating close.

Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez–arguably the most famous guitar concerto in the repertoire–received an impeccable, nuanced performance from Desiderio. The immaculate articulation of his playing coupled with the speed at which his fingers flew was jaw-dropping. He conveyed the slow passages with the utmost tenderness, expertly captured the high-spirited sections, and immaculately phrased the exposed lines.

Aniello Desiderio. Photo courtesy of the guitarist.
Aniello Desiderio. Photo courtesy of the guitarist.

The orchestra marvelously complemented Desiderio with a refined palette of colors. The English horn of Jason Sudduth highlighted the Adagio with a memorable plaintive sound, and principals from other sections contributed wonderfully throughout the piece. 

Clamorous cheering from the audience erupted at the end of the piece, bringing Desiderio back three times.

After intermission, the orchestra topped off the concert with Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony. Even though this work received high acclaim when it was first performed by Leopold Stokowski and the New York Philharmonic in 1934, including a national broadcast on CBS radio, it was all but forgotten until 1992 when the Detroit Symphony recorded it.

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Urged on by Danzmayr, the orchestra delivered this work with tremendous conviction. The first movement, “The Bond of Africa,” featured wailing horns, bold themes, and a wild pummeling of drums that was just flat-out contagious, causing instantaneous applause from all corners of the hall.

This was followed by “Hope in the Night,” which contrasted soulful and forlorn melodies – underscored by a slow beat from the timpani – with uplifting lines. At the end of the movement, a wave of sound unforgettably rose and then fell three times. The final movement–“O, Le’ Me Shine, Shine Like a Morning Star!”–offered sharply accented tunes and splashy, lively shifts before creating a terrific crescendo in the last bars. 

Composer William Dawson.
Composer William Dawson.

Amidst the enthusiastic applause, Danzmayr waded into the orchestra to acknowledge the efforts of the musicians, starting with Jeff Garza and the horn section. As the various sections stood up, it made me wonder if the orchestra might consider recording this work someday.

Another positive note was the sizeable increase in attendance at this concert. It seemed that the house was close to three-quarters full. Perhaps that is a sign of better days soon to come. Fingers crossed.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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