The N.C. Symphonys thematic programs are always informative and engaging. Fridays concert, tracing the influence of African-American music, had a winning, lighthearted atmosphere, aided by Grammy Award-winning Rhiannon Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Music director Grant Llewellyn told the audience that Giddens had mentioned her interest in the history of minstrelsy. Llewellyn joked that he immediately thought she meant medieval minstrels but Giddens was referring to 19th-century minstrel shows. They decided to put together a program incorporating both artists areas of investigation and experience.
Llewellyn began with a nod to 17th-century minstrels through Ottorino Respighis suite of arranged lute music, Ancient Airs and Dances, Set 3. These strings-only pieces conjured images of courts and castles through gentle plucking and resonant bowing.
Jumping to mid 19th-century America, Giddens noted that white musicians took up the banjo, formerly considered a black instrument, around 1855 after the first instruction book was published. She played two pieces from it, accompanied by Malcolm Parson on cello and Rowan Corbett on bones, the second one with a bravura high-speed finale. Giddens also sang two songs from the book, having rewritten the lyrics to reflect a black rather than white viewpoint, transforming them into moving pleas for education and freedom.
Llewellyn finished the first half with Symphonic Variations on an African Air, English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylors 1906 piece based on an African-American spiritual he likely heard on a trip to the American South. After stating the soulful melody, the piece soon submerges it in firmly classical if highly colorful treatments.
Giddens returned with three songs by Will Marion Cook, who broke the color barrier on Broadway in 1898 with his musical Clorindy. Giddens used an appropriately different vocal style to perform these alternately romantic and snappy show tunes in Aaron Grads specially commissioned arrangements.
Llewellyn ended with African-American composer William Grant Stills 1931 African-American Symphony, a four-movement work incorporating jazz, blues and spirituals in a more direct, although loosely organized, way.
Giddens vibrant contributions overshadowed the rather bland orchestral selections, but the program was still a worthy effort to make symphony concerts into something more than repositories for standard repertory.