Friday, October 7, 2016, evening: Music for Band, and a Paper on Music Culture on the Karen People on the Thai-Burma Border
So here we are, as I warned you two months ago, in Mississippi, on a campus that saw action during the Civil War in a town that honors its fallen civil rights pioneers, and during the conference we experienced music intimately connected with this history. Tonight’s concert featuring the Mississippi College Symphonic Winds under the baton of Craig Young was one of those epic moments.
As if to prepare us for our confrontation with slavery and the Civil War, the evening opened with David Caudill’s stirring setting of Psalm 145, I will Extoll (sic) Thee. This psalm, in praising Yahweh, commends Him for His mighty acts. Surely the one act most Jews had uppermost in their memories and spoke about to their children and grandchildren was the Exodus, the deliverance of the Jews from slavery to Pharaoh. The very staging of Caudill’s work bespeaks the faithful worshiper of Yahweh, a solitary and lone figure, challenging an army of musicians (a 56-piece symphonic band), to join him in his adoration. And, just when I though this could not possibly work and that the lone singer would surely be drowned out, Caudill proves me wrong. Hosea Griffith, a baritone and current student at Mississippi College, more than held his own and stayed in command of his thrilling text, always brilliantly emerging above the huge wind ensemble that accompanied him. Like Gustav Mahler, Caudill reserved the full symphonic band for massive, climatic musical commentary on the text and ensured that only small subgroups enabled Griffith’s magnificent voice to proclaim this wonderful psalm quite heroically.
On short notice, Griffith also had to prepare the monumental narrator’s part to Jesse Ayers’ moving work, The Passion of John Brown, which he presented, again, with stellar passion. Having heard a few of Ayers’ dramatic presentations at past CFAMC conferences, I knew Griffith was not up against a mere wind ensemble but a “surround-sound” phalanx of seven or eight trumpets encircling an augmented symphonic band that scarcely left room for the audience. Ayers, confronting the John Brown life story for the first time, admits that he found so much drama in this biography and surrounding history that he found himself struggling over what to leave in to keep this work to a manageable length as commissioned by the Akron Symphony. Ayers has succeeded admirably and his work is as noble and elegant in presenting the highly distilled drama as it is simple: Three minor triads, each a major third away from its neighbor, weave a background tapestry over which unfolds the narration of this flawed abolitionist hero. I am so grateful to Ayers for invoking the Jubilee themes from Leviticus 25 that promise release of slaves every seven years in Israel, along with a return of ancestral lands to the original families every 50th, or jubilee year (the same themes I invoked in my Overture for the Jubilee written for the 50th year of the Quincy [Illinois] Symphony Orchestra in 1993); what an appropriate commentary on our sad and tragic legacy of slavery that continues to this day under the modern name of human trafficking. What a timely presentation: Medgar Evers would have beamed with pleasure, I believe.
Our evening concluded with a paper presentation about a most fascinating missionary and ethnomusicological journey of its authors to the Thai-Burma border to study the history of the ethnic music of another displaced people, the Karen tribes. While the presentation was marred by technical difficulties in presenting slides and videos, this was a captivating documentation of a people that struggled to hand down their folk music traditions to the next generation overwhelmed, thanks to digital technology by Western rock and other non-ethnic musics. The presenters, Joshua Stitt and Peter Hershey shared details of their journey and examples of musical instruments, including the lyre-like tenapu that must be built from wood that has been buried seven years or walked over seven times by an entire village.
What a fascinating – and disquieting – evening spent with the troubling histories and realities of slavery and displacement of peoples. This concert and paper told the story in a compelling fashion.