The Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra recently honored Black History Month in several distinctive and engaging musical ways.

Two such were directed toward Black composers Michael Abels and Xavier Foley, the former for his “Global Warming” and the latter his “For Justice and Peace.” The third again fell to Foley, this time as a brilliant, multiprized and acclaimed double bass player who teamed up with equally prized and acclaimed violinist Eunice Kim in his “Justice” and in Bottesini’s “Gran Duo Concertante for Violin and Bass.”

Abels’ “Global Warming” opened the WSO program on Feb. 2. A strings only piece, “Warming” does not reflect today’s emphasis on that subject but rather the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the thawing of relations at that time and hope for the future.

After an extended back and forth of spirited passages between concertmaster Akemi Takayama and principal cellist Neal Cary, “Warming” evolved into a delightful romp of Irish-like jig references that quickly morphed into somewhat Middle Eastern sounds and percussion-driven rhythms before winding down, the whisper of a delicate harp glissando ushering the piece quietly into thin air.

A catchy, clever and easily engaging work, “Warming” did warm the audience up for what followed, starting with Foley’s “Justice and Peace” featuring Kim and Foley. This dynamic duo joined forces in the Curtis Institute and crisscross the country playing in venues ranging from cafés to concert halls.

Their combined skills were put to superb use in “Justice and Peace” and the following Bottesini. “Justice and Peace” was a co-commission by Carnegie Hall, the esteemed Sphinx Organization and the New World Symphony, specifically crafted to commemorate the 400th year since the arrival of the first slave ship, White Lion, in Jamestown.

The powerful piece represented the struggle of African Americans from the early colonial days to today. Premiered in 2019, the double concerto for violin and bass produced a mighty musical impact, made more so by the use of a mixed voice choir and a gavel. The use of the chorus reflected the moments of comfort and hope slaves felt amid hard times, the latter depicted by the contrasting turbulent strings playing against that lyrical spirit.

The use of the gavel was stunning, much along the sounds of the guillotine in Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” As used here, Foley intended for the stark strike of the gavel to indicate yet another court verdict denying justice to slaves and sentencing them to continued purgatory on earth.

The work was profoundly meaningful and intense, with Foley and Kim providing a form of musical-verbal-emotional context to the theme. This was not meant to be a showcase of virtuoso wonder but a statement of strong conviction. Singers from First Baptist Church of Williamsburg and Bruton Parish Church, directed by Reginald Fox, added layers of intensity in portraying the ill fate of those wanting hope but finding none.

Following the emotional delivery, things lightened up considerably with Bottesini’s “Gran Duo Concertante.”

How appropriate that Bottesini was, in his day (mid-to-late 19th century), considered a double bassist of the proportions and acclaim given Paganini and evidenced in the acclaim and respect for Foley’s skills. Kim dazzled in her virtuoso delivery. As for Foley, few have ever heard the double bass played with the ease, incredible flexibility and off-the-charts virtuoso quality as with Foley.

Filled with melody ranging from sweet and flowing to heroic and bold and plenty of flashy passage work, “Grand Duo” was a fine vehicle for these two superb musicians and a work of gigantic contrast to “Justice and Peace.”

Director Michael Butterman, who worked “Justice and Peace” and the Bottesini with Kim and Foley and the Boulder Philharmonic last fall, brought insight and appeal that found the WSO sounding simply splendid and responsive to his every nuanced move.

Closing this program that moved between themes of darkness and light, oppression and freedom, was Beethoven’s war horse Symphony No. 5. This universally-known piece, from its opening four-note declaration to the heroic close, could easily be dashed off with flair and considered a fine job done.

One of the most gratifying things about Butterman is his ability to take oft’ heard selections and bathe them in touches that produce renewed interest. Such was the case with this Fifth. Elongated phrasing here and there, noted emphasis on dynamics, tempi variations, things obvious and not so allowed a first hearing experience to this well-worn work.

Even with Beethoven’s proclivity for taking several themes and working them over and over, the rehashing was refreshing and made for compelling listening from start to finish. You just had to admire the spirit, the energy, the delicacy and the full range of musical emotions applied to this Beethoven. Playing throughout this work was great, including the brilliant brass in the heroic finale that blasted forth a sense of triumph, connectedness, universality of spirit, peace and hope.

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