To evoke a person's soul, sometimes even the best words must give way to music, as shown in the world premiere of "Zora! We're Calling You!" Saturday night.
The Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra debuted "Zora! We're Calling You," a commissioned work that celebrated Central Florida literary luminary Zora Neale Hurston while simultaneously educating listeners about her life.
The piece was the finale of a program of American music that included Frederick Delius's "Appalachia" and Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring." But the focus was on "Zora!," the product of a collaboration between the Philharmonic and the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, which oversees the annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts.
Hurston, who grew up in Eatonville, is a Harlem Renaissance writer best known for "Their Eyes Were Watching God." The 20-minute composition celebrating her spirit was supported by grants from the Pabst Charitable Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Composer Adolphus Hailstork nicely captured aspects of Hurston's dynamic personality, especially in the opening segment with a playful motif taking the lead before a more serious, deeper melody burst through.
Born in 1891, Hurston was a free spirit and Hailstork infused his work with a jazz feel, the orchestra's drums adding an intensity akin to Hurston's own forceful persona.
Elizabeth Van Dyke wrote the libretto, a spoken-word tribute layered over the music that Van Dyke performed with flair Saturday. It tried to balance a history of Hurston with a celebration of her writings to mixed effect: It's hard for mere facts to compete with colorful stories, so the emotional highlights were found in the folklore Hurston is famed for: a tale of a hungry – and quick-thinking – goat, or a cautionary story about ducking church to catch a catfish.
After quirky stuff like that, it just isn't particularly moving to hear that Hurston had a stamp issued in her honor by the Postal Service – educational, yes, but not nearly as entertaining.
At times the libretto and the music competed for the listener's attention, and it was a bit frustrating to hear Hailstork's work reduced to background music, like a movie score — though having the orchestra emulate a rushing train was a moment of unexpected fun.
Another Hailstork piece, "Celebration," opened the program on a festive note. The instruments of the orchestra seemed to nearly run amok in their joyful noise, though conductor Christopher Wilkins kept them in line. An exuberance shone out, with the percussion section adding a Latin feel to the party-like proceedings.
In the collaborative spirit of Hurston, baritone James Brown III, the Florida Opera Theatre Chorus and the "Negro Spiritual" Scholarship Foundation Master Singers joined the Philharmonic on a peaceful reading of Delius's "Appalachia."
In his few solo lines, the warmth of Brown's baritone stood out over the mixed chorus, whose higher vocal parts sometimes overwhelmed the words although the overall effect was pleasing.
"Appalachian Spring" had a lovely swell to the climactic sounds of "Simple Gifts," but on this night even Copland's master work stood in the shadow of a vibrant Eatonville woman ahead of her time.
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