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The Jamaica Symphony Orchestra
I just spent an evening with my family listening to the Jamaica Symphony Orchestra (JSO) perform at the Northern Caribbean University (NCU) Main Auditorium in Mandeville, Jamaica. It was the first in a series of two concerts, the second will be held tomorrow at University of the West Indies (UWI) Assembly Hall at Mona. I left feeling that the audience should have been treated to more or longer pieces and less talk from the amiable master of ceremonies.
According to the programme the JSO is “currently the only world-class symphony orchestra with a uniquely Caribbean sound…While the typical symphony orchestra has only four sections: Strings, Woodwind, Brass and Percussion; the Jamaica Symphony Orchestra is distinguished by including the steel pan, which originates from Trinidad and Tobago, as a fifth, equal section of the orchestra. This additional section is what creates our unique Caribbean sound.”
The narration by the master of ceremonies sought to describe the composition and fared well with pieces such as Schumann’s ‘Two Grenadiers’. Otherwise he somehow distracted from the commendable performance by trying to insert witty comments which though humorous, would have been more appropriate in any other type of concert.
But I suppose this was Music Director, the energetic Lisa Walker’s method of educating Jamaicans on the classics. Did she count on a gregarious master of ceremonies? Next time use a senior music specialist to do limited narration, and then let the instruments do the talking.
Beginning with Concerto No. 2, Movement III by Seitz the first section sounded off with strings in the Training Division. Children as young as two were featured. The appreciative audience was treated to fine music which included three short works by J.S. Bach and several folk songs.
Lisa Walker showed her propensity for drama when she welcomed us back from the break with full orchestra playing the rousing finale from Rossini’s William Tell Overture. The concert then moved through the items under section spotlights. The Spotlight on Strings featured Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, Movement I, and Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor, Movement I Opus 3.
This second and final segment of the concert will be remembered for two other works: Dvorak’s New World Symphony and of course, the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s “The Messiah”.
The Spotlight on Brass emphasis which came across in the Dvorak piece moved the soul of the Mandeville crowd. The Czech composer who migrated to America has been known to credit Negro and Indian culture for inspiring the famous symphony. The MC read the text which quoted Dvorak: “ in the Negro melodies of America I find all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, bold, merry,gay, or what you will. There is nothing in the whole range of composition which cannot be supplied from this source…I am satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called the Negro melodies.”
Lisa Walker’s conducting of this symphony was as artistic as the music itself.
Spotlight on Steel Pan item “Likkle Dancehall Fugue” was not performed, and I do not recall hearing any explanation for the omission. I was left guessing whether or not it had something to do with the Christian education ethos of NCU; if so, no problem.
As I sat listening to the best of Jamaica, and the world, I could not help but wonder if this renaissance might be too little, too late. Jamaican music has deteriorated into a wheel and come again dancehall celebration of death and violence. I congratulate Lisa Walker and the two universities involved, and trust that they will inspire a new generation of musicians who will promote the beautiful and the good.