Perfect Pitch: Cross-Cultural

by patrickmccoy

Apollo Orchestra bridges the gap between town and gown with recent Kennedy Center performance.

By Patrick D. McCoy

Soprano Harolyn Blackwell recently joined the Apollo Orchestra in concert at The Kennedy Center, performing the songs of Ricky Ian Gordon. (Photo:  Courtesy of Apollo Orchestra)

Soprano Harolyn Blackwell recently joined the Apollo Orchestra in concert at The Kennedy Center, performing the songs of Ricky Ian Gordon. (Photo courtesy Apollo Orchestra)

When musicians leave college, they often seem to leave their talent, or interest for performing, behind. Luckily for those whose deep passion still burns within, organizations such as The Downing Family Foundation wait in the wings to cultivate such dormant talent. No stranger to the performing arts community, founder Robert Downing established The Apollo Orchestra to provide free musical opportunities to the public. Downing is also the president of the Washington National Opera Board and his wife, Lynn Downing, serves as Senior Vice President of the The Apollo Orchestra.

Billed as their big performance of the year, the orchestra was joined by Metropolitan Opera star soprano Harolyn Blackwell. The Washington D.C. native performed selections from the song cycle “Genius Child” composed for her by contemporary composer Ricky Ian Gordon. This performance, held in conjunction with the Millennium Stage concert series, was the premiere of a special orchestral setting of the songs. The four selections were all on the text of poet Langston Hughes.  The opening, “Genius Child,” was like a whimsical conversation between the soprano and the instruments of the orchestra. Musically, the interwoven lines of Blackwell’s soprano with the dance-like movement of the instruments conveyed a sense of childlike innocence. That precocious nature continued in “Kid in the Park” with a lone horn in duet with Blackwell, both eventually finding solace in the lush strings of the orchestra. Rounding out the selections was “My People,” an exhilarating affirmation of acceptance capturing the beauty of the voice and the tonal depth of the orchestral accompaniment. “Joy” was a jazzy contrast to the group of songs and the perfect tour de force, bringing the setting to a euphoric end.

Book-ending Blackwell’s performance with the orchestra were the instrumental works of Alberto Ginastera, Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, Arturo Marquez and Margaret Bonds. We noted that the musical selections represented cultural and musical diversity across the spectrum of composers. This kind of intentional programming seemed to speak to the cross section of guests and that momentum was especially felt as the concert progressed. Ginastera’s “Estancia” was a rich orchestral feast for the ears. From the rich, sonorous brass in “Los trabajadores Agricolas” to the rhythmic drive of the instruments in the final dance, “Malambo,” conductor Stephen Czarkowski led a performance that was filled with emotional pathos and tonal beauty. Copland’s “Hoe-down” had the audience on the verge of foot-tapping. Often used in television commercials, the Copland piece provided the perfect connection for the listener of classical music to everyday life.

To end the program, Blackwell returned with a performance of the beloved spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” arranged by Margaret Bonds. Accompanied by the orchestra, the audience got the full scope of her range as she capped the piece with a thrilling high D-reflective of the success of the evening.

After earning degrees in music from Virginia State University and Shenandoah University, Patrick D. McCoy has contributed arts pieces to CBS Washington and The Afro-American Newspaper, among others.  He also writes the magazine’s monthly performing arts column “Perfect Pitch.”  McCoy may be reached via email at and on Twitter @PatrickDMcCoy.

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