The Annapolis Symphony Orchestra marked the 60th anniversary of its founding this year, celebrating with a concert tour in Spain over the summer. The ensemble inaugurated its new season with a worthy program devoted entirely to American music. The audience at Friday night’s performance filled only about half of the auditorium at Maryland Hall, but hopefully more people will hear it via the orchestra’s on-demand video streaming service.
Music director José-Luis Novo, in lengthy comments before the second half, positioned the program as a paean to the immigrant roots of so many Americans, including himself. He opened the evening with El Salon México, Aaron Copland’s symphonic ode to the folk and popular music he heard on his visits to Mexico in the 1930s. The work, whose title refers to a Mexico City dance hall, is a portrait in melodies from sheet music Copland purchased.
Novo conducted with utmost precision, carefully marking all of the odd metrical groupings and syncopations. Some false entrances cropped up, especially in exposed passages, but the flavor of the piece came through clearly, especially in fine trumpet and clarinet solos. The string principals gave a wistful, Straussian sheen to the middle section, followed by sneering E-flat clarinet wails.
The aura of nostalgia deepened in Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, introduced with plangent oboe solos from Fatma Daglar and a lush pillow of sound from the string section. Soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme’s diction was so clear that one could make out every word of James Agee’s poignant text. Based on his childhood memories of Tennessee, the words recall the year before Agee’s father was killed in a car accident. Agee, then 6, and his family would soon leave their hometown permanently.
Chandler-Eterne’s top range shimmered and Novo kept the balance with the orchestra soft and supportive, an envelope of sound for the poem’s child-like wonder. Although she was overpowered a bit in the louder middle section, Chandler-Eterne brought out the sweetness of the ending, as the family sat together on the lawn to escape the summer heat.
The soprano exuded even greater confidence in two encore-like amuse-bouches that followed. Copland’s song “Zion’s Walls,” from Old American Songs, rank out with earnest conviction. This was followed by a misty-eyed burgeoning of simple faith in “This Little Light of Mine,” in Hale Smith’s polished, Nelson Riddle-like orchestration from Four Negro Spirituals.
The evening became even more sentimental with Peter Boyer’s Ellis Island: The Dream of Americaa piece that has received extraordinary play, for a contemporary work, since its premiere in 2002. Boyer’s heart-tugging neoclassical harmonic style avoids almost all offensive dissonance, mostly providing an anodyne Hollywood soundtrack to the spoken texts, drawn from immigrant interviews recorded by the Ellis Island Oral History Project.
More than 40% of Americans trace their roots to an ancestor who came through Ellis Island, which operated from 1892 to 1954. Actors Greg Jones Ellis and Nancy Krebs, from Classic Theater of Maryland, read the words of seven new Americans, who came from Europe and Russia. All were poor, many did not speak English, and they were often fleeing war and persecution, just trying to keep their families together. These are quintessentially American stories.
The musical prologue of the work bears an uncanny resemblance in mood and orchestration to the introduction to the theme of the television show Star Trek. A serene trumpet solo arose from this misty lead-in, and plenty of metallic percussion and poignant melody set an emotional tone. Photographs of Ellis Island and the passengers that arrived there, set in a video projection, accompanied the more musically significant interludes between impassioned and often humorous testimonials.
Moments of tension came from the groaning brass evoking a storm near Gibraltar for one arrival, as well as the martial snare drum’s beat that went with the plight of war refugees described by another. Jones Ellis was especially effective as the Irish immigrant, whose happy-go-lucky tale was accompanied by the upbeat sounds of jazz piano, drum kit, and crooning saxophone. Novo coordinated all these moving parts with crisp efficiency.
The program will be repeated at 8 pm Saturday. annapolissymphony.org