Danielle Ponder and Avis Reese
Danielle Ponder and Avis Reese perform for the LA Phil’s “Rock My Soul” festival | Credit: Farah Sosa

Driven by the long-running streams of civil rights and feminism, as turbocharged by the recent #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Rock My Soul” festival dominates the offerings at Walt Disney Concert Hall this month.

It’s supposed to be a celebration of Black women composers and artists past and present “in collaboration and community.” As in several previous LA Phil festivals of late, the offerings stretch beyond the boundaries of so-called classical music. In other words, diversity and inclusion have reached a point of apotheosis here — and it’s going to be interesting to speculate on what permanent marks, if any, will be left on the repertoire long after the festival’s aftermath.

I have to say, though, that I’m not entirely sold on the worth of everything that has come down the pike in the concerts I’ve attended so far — at least the ones that the Phil has participated in.

Jeri Lynne Johnson
Jeri Lynne Johnson leads the LA Phil | Credit: Farah Sosa

The first concert Nov. 6, planned as a pair of musical portraits of composers Florence Price and Margaret Bonds, was a sampler of short pieces and excerpts that frankly contained a lot of mediocre music, sometimes gussied up with cinematic orchestral charts that didn’t help. In the case of Price — who is in the process of becoming a posthumous superstar since the discovery of her long-presumed-lost manuscripts in 2009 — her segment, multifaceted though it was, didn’t reveal any overlooked gems, although the witty trifles of Four Encore Songs showed that at least she had a sense of humor. Bonds fared somewhat better in a few of her deeper, more harmonically advanced songs, and her orchestral Montgomery Variations had some stirring spiritual-based passages. Still, it felt like a long haul to the finish line.

But Friday night’s concert (Nov. 11), as led by the lithe, graceful conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson, was considerably more rewarding — particularly in the first half, where the emphasis was on contemporary Black women composers and performers showing off some of their best stuff. Though it was also just a bit confusing.

Jeri Lynne Johnson
Conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson | Credit: Farah Sosa

Evidently there had been several changes in the program between the time the “Rock My Soul” brochure had been made up and what was presented Friday night. The original title of the concert was “Bryan, Bonds, and Price,” promising Courtney Bryan’s orchestral work with prerecorded voices, Sanctum; a segment of undetermined songs by Price and Bonds, with singer also to be determined; and finally Price’s Symphony No. 3 in C Minor. The printed program struck Price and Bonds from the listings, only to say that there would be songs announced from the stage by singer Danielle Ponder, who used to work as an attorney, now making her debut in front of an orchestra. Then the program insert added Valerie Colemans bassoon concertino Opus Serena, a world premiere, to the lineup and revealed that Ponder would be performing songs by herself and Price.

To add to the confusion, Julia Bullock, the increasingly influential soprano who was curating the festival but couldn’t appear in person due to being on maternity leave, said via prerecorded video that Coleman’s piece was inspired by a Maya Angelou poem, “Phenomenal Woman.” However, Coleman’s own program note made no mention of Angelou, saying that Opus Serena was inspired by the life of tennis star Serena Williams.

Monica Ellis
Monica Ellis premieres Valerie Coleman’s Opus Serena for the LA Phil’s “Rock My Soul” festival | Credit: Farah Sosa

Who was right? Undoubtedly, we should go with the composer just from the evidence of the piece alone, the first part of which sounded like a back-and-forth tennis match with temple blocks bonking and strings and winds sweeping up and down. The bassoon part, adroitly handled by Monica Ellis, is supposed to represent Williams herself, with the quizzical solo honkings in the cadenza allegedly (and humorously) reflecting the tennis star’s irritation at the questions lobbed to her at press conferences. It’s really a marvelous, compact portrait drawn in just eight and a half minutes, with Stravinsky-like repeated thrusts in the strings and even a comic whiff of Petrushka near the close.

The toyshop tribulations of competitive sports gave way to more serious matters in Bryan’s Sanctum, with its shudderingly ominous opening, string slides, and the prerecorded voices and labored breathing (suggesting shades of Michael Tippett’s Symphony No. 4) of victims of police beatings. The tension of the piece filled the hall even at its quietest, culminating near the end with a percussion jam like Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation, plus scrambling strings and the voices of angry demonstrators. Yet Bryan doesn’t beat you over the head, instead maintaining a cool rage against the system. It’s one of the best pieces to emerge from the Black Lives Matter era so far, written in 2015 while the protests in Ferguson, Mo., were unfolding.

Ponder’s brief set turned out to be quite moving, particularly the songs that she wrote with her pianist Avis Reese, whose lyrics spoke of desperation in the first song and of a romantic breakup two years in the making in the next. Mournful yet dignified, the words of “Only the Lonely” cut deeply, the music occupying a comfortable space somewhere between art song and pop song. Switching to an entirely different timbre and delivery, Ponder then reprised Price’s treatment of the spiritual “I Am Bound for the Kingdom,” which had been done already on Nov. 6, but this time with just simple piano accompaniment, and much better off for it. With one more original, “The Only Way Out,” Ponder and Reese were done.

Price’s Symphony No. 3 has been one of the more prominent beneficiaries of inclusion as of late, increasingly featured on the schedules of American orchestras. The symphony’s so-called modernist elements, highly touted by some commentators, mainly consist of a few whole-tone passages left over from Debussy’s time mixed in with the spiritual-based material and folkish flavor of the usual (for Price) Juba third movement. But it is still an advance over the warmed-over Dvořák-isms of her Symphony No. 1. (How the Symphony No. 2 advances on that has yet to be determined because the score remains lost as of this writing.)

LA Phil
Jeri Lynne Johnson leads the LA Phil | Credit: Farah Sosa

Already, the Symphony No. 3 has received a high-visibility recording, a lovingly played rendition by Yannick Nezét-Séguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon. But while the Philadelphians made a persuasive, fully integrated case for the piece, it kind of fell apart in the detailed X-ray acoustics of Disney Hall, the segments now disjointed in search of a unifying thread. As in Philadelphia, the Juba movement proved to be the most vital part of the whole, and the LA Phil leaped into it with a bustling spirit, if not much of a bounce, while emphasizing the blues tinge in the de facto trio segment. Overall, though, the symphony just didn’t hang together; it evidently needs organization on the part of interpreters that was missing here.

Bottom line: The “Rock My Soul” festival will be remembered not so much for an affirmation of the Black women composers of the past as it will be for some of the vital, inventive, issue-oriented music being written today. And it wouldn’t be until Saturday night’s concert (Nov. 12) with Rhiannon Giddens and the Resistance Revival Chorus that a literal rocking of the soul took place.

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