Great Falls Symphony’s tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. marred by questionable choices
Sometimes a show can be negatively affected by the time of year it’s held. Such was the case with Saturday’s symphony performance.
If it was held at any other time of the year, other than right before Martin Luther King Day, a lot of the issues that surrounded it would have been less serious.
Even so, the show was a bit too busy with maybe one too many things happening.
More than anything, though, because it was designed to be a tribute to Dr. King, it came across as a little racially insensitive.
Insensitive mostly because of the choice to perform George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” instead of perhaps featuring an African American composer or two.
It was also a curious choice to feature a white composer who indeed wrote an outstanding piece that paid tribute to the legendary Native American leader Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse and Martin Luther King are both memorable minority leaders, but, beyond that there isn’t much they have in common.
Now, on it’s own John Harmon’s “Crazy Horse, Legendary Hero of the Lakota,” was an outstanding musical achievement. But, more on that in a minute.
The symphony simply shouldn’t have chosen to play “Porgy and Bess.” Which, to be sure, is a marvelous piece of music. On Saturday, though, it felt way too out of place, especially considering the racial tension the opera has garnered over the years.
If you’re not familiar with the controversy, starting in the 1930s and going all the way through to modern times, there have been qeustions about the portrayal of African Americans in the play.
Places such as the Negro Repertory Company of Seattle, and the University of Minnesota, have cancelled the performance because of the issues regarding the way it portrayed African Americans.
In the 1950s and 60s, members of the American Civil Rights and Black Power movements called the opera “Detrimental to the race,” and well-known African American academic Harold Cruse called it, “The most incongruous, contradictory cultural symbol ever created in the Western World.”
Now, to be clear, the symphony show only featured the operatic music from the play, and not any actual scenes that have been deemed objectionable over the years.
However, it’s a curious choice to be played in a show meant to be a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., given the racial tension of the play.
If it were me organizing the performance, I might have found a piece from an African American composer. There are several that come to mind such as William Grant Still’s “Afro-American,” anything from Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, or “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast” by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
After Porgy and Bess, the symphony welcomed talented cellist Ovidiu Marinescu, who played a piece from a French composer and an encore solo performance of a Bach piece.
Marinescu’s mastery of the cello is second to none and he played with a wonderful vibrancy that made everyone in attendance feel something real and something poignant with every note he played as evidenced by the multiple standing ovations he received.
Harmon also received a rousing standing ovation. The crowd loved it, and it was a treat to get a real, live composer come see the symphony play one of his pieces. It is incredibly rare and was unique opportunity for everyone invovled.
Afterward Harmon said it was a thrill of a lifetime to hear the audience react so positively to his composition.
And indeed the piece was very rhythmic, very emotional, very passionate. It also delivered on conductor Gordon Johnson’s promise of being Harmon’s magnum opus.
And while the trumpets and trombones were noticably off key in certain parts throughout, it only slightly hurt the quality of the performance.
My favorite part was the third movement titled “Little Big Horn,” which was meant to represent Crazy Horse’s involvement in the battle that killed a great many of his people. The other three pieces were titled “Youth: The Journey Begins,” “The Deepening,” and “My Lands are Where My Dead are Buried.”
“Little Big Horn” was a chaotic movement with lots of strange structures with various time signatures. Harmon said he expected it to be a difficult one for the performers. And, having talked to a few of them afterward, they said it was indeed a challenge, albeit an enjoyable one.
The first movement was a joy, as well, ending with a powerful gusto that had the audience roaring in appreciation. It was an excellent start, and set the tone that made you feel, by the end of the night, as if you were returning home after an exciting journey with plenty of twists and turns.
Getting back to the racial issues, the only major criticism with how the Harmon piece was presented is that there wasn’t one Native American on stage as it was performed.
Not that it was needed, but, it would have made the tribute feel a bit more authetic. Even moreso if they were able to find someone from the Oglala Lakota tribe.
Maybe they did indeed extend the invitation and nobody was able to attend. As it was, though, it rang a bit empty because esentially it was an all-white symphony performing a piece written by a white man in front of an all-white audience.
None of that is meant to take away from the power of the piece. It was a brilliant composition, and one that the folks in attendence will likely remember for some time.
But, I do also question the decision to highlight a piece by a Native American on Martin Luther King Day and not an African American.
Now, when it comes to featuring a Native American over an African American, King would likely have said that his efforts were intended to extend to all minorities.
Maybe that was the point of choosing a piece that pays tribute to a Native American. One could also point to the fact that here in Montana there aren’t that many African Americans but there are many Native Americans.
However, King was an African American and it was the most visible of all minorities who he set out to help.
This decision by no means ruined the show, and I did indeed enjoy myself, as did many others in the audience.
In the end though, with what was likely unintended, but still slight racial insensitivity nonetheless, the performance will be remembered as a good one, but definitely not one of the symphony’s best.