“In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,” the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak declared in an interview published by the New York Herald on May 21, 1893. Renowned for works inspired by and infused with the essence of his native folk traditions, Dvorak found in African-American spirituals a foundation upon which an authentic American compositional style could be built. In his well-loved Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” his melodic strains echo the pangs and succor of traditional spirituals, along with inspirations culled from Native American art and lore.
Among Dvorak’s peers, reactions ranged from offense to jubilation. Some heeded his call, including R. Nathaniel Dett, who adopted spirituals as a resource after hearing a Dvorak quartet performed at Oberlin College. On Wednesday, in an enterprising program presented by the Boston Landmarks Orchestra in partnership with the Museum of African American History, Dett’s motet “The Chariot Jubilee” shared the bill with Dvorak’s ubiquitous “New World.”
Opening a concert that was relocated from the Hatch Shell to a stuffy but sonorous Church of the Convenant because of rain, Dett’s work spun elegant variations on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and other traditional songs. Christopher Wilkins, the Landmarks music director, drew an animated, committed account from his orchestra and the New England Spiritual Ensemble, whose tenor Davron S. Monroe was a potent soloist. (Here, and throughout, three American Sign Language interpreters worked passionately in a high pulpit.)
Unaccompanied, the ensemble gave stirring accounts of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “Great Day,” in sleek arrangements by John Andrew Rose and Warren Martin, respectively. “Joshua Fit the Battle,” arranged by Margaret Bonds, introduced the orchestra’s new One City Junior Choir, whose fresh-voiced young singers came from choruses throughout the Boston area.
Choir, ensemble, and orchestra converged in Trevor Weston’s “Griot Legacies,” commissioned for the occasion. But the first voice heard was that of an 84-year-old man singing a homespun “Run to Jesus,” in a 1960 recording taped by Alan Lomax, accompanied with subtle, suspenseful orchestral strains.
Weston, a music professor at Drew University, trained early on as a choirboy at New York’s St. Thomas Church, and earned undergraduate degrees in music and history at Tufts. Subsequent movements based on further spirituals showed his knack for piquant harmonies, evocative textures, and effective vocal writing; even in joyous passages, melancholy strains hinted at the spiritual’s bittersweet ancestry. At the work’s conclusion, Weston received a rousing ovation.
With the Dvorak symphony came one more novelty: @LandmarksNotes, a Twitter feed through which pre-scripted program notes were posted by Kristo Kondakci, the orchestra’s artistic fellow, in synch with the performance. If the effort sometimes recalled Peter Schickele’s wicked play-by-play commentary for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, overall the experiment was thoughtfully managed. I confess, however, that I often lost track of the feed — distracted time and again by some fresh nuance that Wilkins coaxed out of a thrice-familiar piece.Steve Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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