Jader Bignamini, new Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, made a very strong impression on Friday evening in a live-streamed program of music by composers of African descent from Detroit’s magnificent Orchestra Hall. Short works by 20th-century Americans William Grant Still and George Walker complemented a Classical-era symphony by French composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), the so-called “Black Mozart”.

Jader Bignamini conducts the Detroit Symphony Orchestra
© Sarah Smarch

George Walker’s 1946 Lyric, for string orchestra, written in honor of his grandmother’s death, was elegiac in a modern romantic style, similar in harmonic structure to works by Samuel Barber, abounding in overlapping melodies, with two restrained climaxes before resolving peacefully.

William Grant Still’s Serenade for Chamber Orchestra (1957) added flute, clarinet and harp to the ensemble. In brief spoken remarks, Bignamini described the piece, in three short sections, as a “musical postcard” from the composer's hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, on a hot, humid day. The opening was lyric, with an unmistakable “American romantic” style, followed by a livelier central section with syncopated rhythms in the flute and clarinet, then taken up by the strings. The languorous mood of the opening returns at the end.

Where these two works are perfectly formed miniatures, the Symphony no. 1 in G major by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges is in three movements, Allegro–Andante–Allegro. It follows the usual conventions of 18th-century symphonic style and orchestration, with two oboes and horn supplementing the strings. Despite the wide spacing of performers on the stage, the ensemble was tight, and clear. Bignamini is not a “dance on the podium” conductor; his direction was precise and, especially in the Saint-Georges, he led musical phrases, marking the arc of the music, sometimes almost dropping out while the orchestral played themselves. All of the performances on this concert portend good things to come for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Bignamini’s leadership.

The DSO players and conductor all wore masks and were widely separated across the stage. Woodwinds and horns were separated by plexiglass shields. Camerawork and sound were both top-notch. The performance ran for slightly less than an hour, which was just about perfect.

Despite the musical excellence, the interesting works on this performance, and Bignamini’s comment that “music and art do not know the color of [one’s] skin,” I was left with the ongoing question of why this music was artistically segregated in a program of only music by black composers. Bignamini’s statement that these are beautiful pieces that need to be played more often is true. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra – and virtually all other American orchestras – need to continue the work of regularly including music by black composers, as well as by women and other minorities, in the course of regular concert programming. All audience members will be enriched from the effort.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream on DSO Digital Concerts