The upper deck of a New Jersey car park can be lovelier than it might sound. Surrounded on three sides by treetops and with the setting sun at stage left, the setting for the Lots of Strings Music Festival at the Morris Museum in Morristown, NJ, is an unexpectedly appealing alternative in this autumn of innovations and safe isolation avoidance. This concert by a string quartet drawn from the ranks of the American Symphony Orchestra was given over to African American composers and to pieces that demonstrated, according to curator and ASO violinist Phillip Payton, a particularly American feel.

American Symphony Orchestra Quartet © Jack Grassa
American Symphony Orchestra Quartet
© Jack Grassa

The Americanism in the compositions on the program (dating from the middle of the last century to very recent years) was culled from African American hymns, gospel and pre-jazz social music. The concert opened with one of the most recognizable of hymns, We Shall Overcome, as arranged by Adolphus Hailstork in his 2012 Three spirituals: for violin, viola, cello. The brief piece unfolded beautifully, opening with the familiar melody stated in unison, then restated in variations by the violin with a pizzicato cello and finally a viola counterpoint. The spiritual Wade in the Water arose in Jessie Montgomery’s 2008 Voodoo Dolls (which followed the Hailstork), or at least seemed to, and its bold rhythms and West African-inspired rhythms played nicely against the Hailstork trio.  

The concert was the first program of chamber music to be presented by the ASO, an initiative taken under current restrictions on large assemblies, and so made this a new quartet, although certainly one with a history together. The four players were, nevertheless, brisk and utterly in sync, giving the music personality without overly infusing it with character, a respect that was especially apparent in three short arrangements by Florence Price. Much of Price’s work has been rediscovered – or even discovered for the first time – in recent years, her catalog having gone largely unpublished and uncollected. The quartet played selections from her Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint (also known as Five Folksongs in Counterpoint), composed in 1951. The truncated version concluded with Shortnin’ Bread, which moved the program for the spiritual to the social, a playful cakewalk and the ‘straightest’ of the Price arrangements. It was all too brief, and a shame to hear only three of the five sections. 

Less rewarding were the two movements played of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s three-movement quartet Calvary (from 1956), based on another old spiritual. Compared to the strong pronouncements of the previous pieces, Calvary felt forceful without merit, and without the impetus of sentiment, the quartet felt out of their depth – or perhaps at a loss for depth. The unfortunate decision to play excerpts from larger works might not have had many audience members complaining as the sun set and temperature dropped. But getting to hear the whole of the Hailstork and Price works would have more than made up for setting the Perkinson quartet aside. (One of the two movements omitted from the Price was included as an encore.) 

American Symphony Orchestra Quartet © Jack Grassa
American Symphony Orchestra Quartet
© Jack Grassa

William Grant Still’s Lyric Quartette (1960) borrowed, in part, from an Inca melody and again called to mind that particular, pre-jazz form of social music. But rather than using it to set a scene, here the form was remolded, varied in a very classical way. In that regard, it was not at all unlike the common setting of European folk dance music and perhaps as sweetly familiar to American ears as Bartók can be to Hungarian. 

In a program laden with musical references, Trevor Weston’s Juba (2019) promised to be a whirlwind of exhaustion. The composer introduced the piece by explaining that it was based on a Burundi theme that had become the basis of early African American hymns and fiddle tunes. The title, too, references slave-era musical traditions, naming a dance also known as ‘hambone’, and indeed the piece called upon the players to stomp out rhythms on occasion. “Moving while you play is very much part of the tradition,” Weston said. None of that would have been evident had Weston not been there to explain it, but the piece would have been no worse for wear; it was a challenging and engaging piece, unexpectedly dissonant and given a vivid performance. The quartet rose to the challenge of something a little harder if not to play than at least to understand. The single movement was murky and wobbly, finding direction and sinking again, eventually gelling around a cello vibrato before finally hinting at the Americana that had supposedly been in play all along. It was actually quite wonderful in ways beyond what the composer described, and may have even elicited some movement from audience members in the folding chairs they had brought – or maybe that was just the evening chill. 

 

***11