Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra at the Barnes: Mystical Connections

The Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra is a professional orchestra based in Philadelphia, started by its conductor, Jeri Lynne Johnson, eight years ago in 2007. They presented “Through the Oceans of Time” on December 19, 2015 at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. The orchestra consists of 40 members, and on Saturday evening they were joined by student instrumentalists of the Settlement Music School’s Trowbridge Chamber Orchestra, for this diverse musical program.  The Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra is to be commended for its outreach to the community and its mission to music education. According to the evening’s program booklet:  “The BPCO spends approximately 30 weeks each year presenting programs in Philadelphia public schools and community centers that offer young people the opportunity to engage with classical music.”

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At the beginning of the concert it was announced to the audience that Dr. Barnes used to have a weekly lecture on music and art in the art galleries and that the night’s event was in the spirit of that tradition. For sure one can make connections and notice similarities between composers and visual artists (especially contemporaries), and paintings and musical works. In order to elucidate the connections among the musical works, Maestro Johnson gave a brief explanation before each piece. We, the audience, were also invited to browse and stroll through the galleries during the concert to further experience these linkages. Even though the Barnes has art by some of the most important impressionists and others (such as Cezanne, Renoir, Modigliani, Miró, etc.) very few people took advantage of this. There were maybe 3 or 4 people visible in the galleries during the musical performances but most stayed in their seats to listen up close.

Although I thought it was a seductive and different idea, I also felt that it would reduce the live music to accompaniment while viewing artistic masterpieces. Since I came to hear the music, particularly Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9, for me it would defeat the purpose of attending a live concert–that it would turn the live orchestra into a soundtrack. In that case, I could just bring my IPOD and walk around the galleries and examine the paintings. That was not why I was there–I was there for the music.  Nevertheless, I recognize and applaud the effort to make these connections and add some layers to the viewing (of art) and listening (of music) experience.  These are highly technological times and many people have short attention spans–this multitasking approach to visual art and music might appeal to some!

The highlight of the evening for me was the last piece of the program by Brazilian composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos–Bachianas Brasileiras  No. 9. After playing with aplomb, the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, and the very challenging Stravinsky Concerto in E-flat “Dumbarton Oaks”, the orchestra launched into the hauntingly beautiful “Prelude” or vagaroso e místico (slow and mystical) of the Villa-Lobos piece. Villa-lobos gave a name to each movement with an explanation in parenthesis. The Prelude is almost 3 minutes long and then comes the Fugue, or poco apressado (a little hurried) which lasts about 6-7 minutes.  The sound of the orchestra is very lush and (neo) romantic in this selection.

Villa-Lobos uses counterpoint and fugue. These elements are also found in the other pieces in the concert, which are by Mozart, Bach,  Vivaldi and Stravinsky. That is one of their connections across time and space. Specifically Villa-Lobos is identified with Bach in the Bachianas due to these forms. But that is where the resemblance ends. This piece was originally written for voices, but later Villa-Lobos scored it for instruments. The Prelude begins with a chord and a sublime and poignant melody for one part. Throughout the prelude or “slow and mystical” the melancholy is evident. This invokes saudade, which is typical of the Portuguese musical genres, the modinha and the fado, which both influenced Brazilian music. So much of Villa-Lobos’ music is about nature. There are no words in this instrumental version, but the vastness of the Brazilian landscape is felt in the thick, multilayered sound and majestic gestures of the music–very different from the other works on the program.

 

This outstanding piece, expertly played by the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, was a strong ending to an entertaining concert, but I wished it wasn’t so short!

All in all, the orchestra, the youth ensemble, the soloists and the music director (conductor) distinguished themselves in a unique venue. There is something gracious and inviting about music in the museums. Even if we do not walk around in the gallery looking at artwork while the orchestra plays or the singers sing, the presence of the art and the beautiful surroundings, create a synergy with the music, the musicians and the audience. This is the ethereal connection over oceans of time and space. This is a connection that is a win win for everyone!

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Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia (Photo by Smallbones)

For more information about the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra: http://www.blackpearlco.org/web/home.aspx

For more information about the Barnes Foundation:  https://www.barnesfoundation.org/

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