ROBERT BRUCE SMITH: Tupelo Symphony plays American music of wonder and tragedy

By Robert Bruce Smith

TUPELO – Symphonic music by distinguished American composers of the 20th and 21st centuries – plus the return of a glamorously captivating flute soloist – lured a whole houseful of music lovers to the Link Centre Concert Hall on Saturday, Jan. 29. Conducted by its ever-resourceful music director, Steven Byess, the Tupelo Symphony Orchestra played with an obviously heartfelt warmth and fervency that belied January’s dark winter chill outside.
In a series of four visionary musical compositions, Byess and the TSO invited listeners once more to glimpse the limitless horizons, pioneering excitement, and sometimes tragic history that accompanied European settlement of the fabulous landmass called the New World.
Certainly this new continent offered no more exotic sight to European eyes than its nearly 700 species of birds. In the early 1800s their songful trills and exquisite beauty stimulated John James Audubon to create our country’s first great masterpiece of graphic art: the multivolume “Birds of America.” In 2007, these same elegantly plumed creatures of the air inspired American composer Richard Meyer to create “Of Glorious Plumage,” a shimmering, impressionistic tone poem which Byess chose to open Saturday’s performance.
Continuing the American theme, Byess also featured Charles Griffes’ brief but gorgeously fountainlike “White Peacock,” and Aaron Copeland’s rollicking eight-movement musical essay on 19th-century pioneer life, “Appalachian Spring.”
Saturday’s indubitable stellar attraction, however, was Michael Daugherty’s monumental “Trail of Tears” Concerto for flute and orchestra – a truly unique forging of artistic triumph and historic tragedy into 22 minutes of intensely passionate musical encounter.
Deeply moved by the painful 1830s forced migration of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and other indigenous tribes from their beloved Deep South hunting grounds, Daugherty characterizes “Trail of Tears” as a “musical journey,” showing “how the human spirit discovers ways to deal with upheaval, adversity, and adapting to a new environment.”
As introduction, TSO board member Brad Prewett brought Daugherty’s wordless Native American drama home to our doorsteps by describing the fierce, lordly tribe of warriors who once dominated these Northeast Mississippi hills – the proud Chickasaw. Prewett also presented several invited officials from Chickasaw Nation Headquarters in Oklahoma, including arts director Frieda Clark, who brought greetings from the tribe’s chief executive, and official storyteller Lorie Robins, who recounted the Chickasaws’ emergence into modern life.
Whether played around the dancing flames of ancestral campfires or in a modern concert hall, no musical instrument so links the long ages of human history like the flute. And as played by the charismatic soloist Amy Porter (with whom Daugherty collaborated in writing “Trail of Tears”), no instrument could conceivably sound more lively or richly expressive.
Like a seer foretelling an ominous whirlwind, Porter launched the concerto’s first movement (“where the wind blows free”) with a breathy, haunting solo full of eloquently bent pitches and Jethro Tull-like flutters. Soon the orchestra joined her in multihued tones of wistful farewell, culminated by a wrenching “Trail of Tears” march, commemorating the 4,000 Cherokee (plus unknown thousands of other tribal migrants) who died while trekking to Oklahoma.
From this turbulent mood of oppressive sorrow, Porter and the TSO then soared to the transcendent realm of eagles and ancestral spirits in the second movement (“incantation”), before plunging into the wildly rhythmic finale (“sun dance”) with its pulsing tom toms and dynamically hopeful theme of reconnection to ancient traditions.
Both a dazzling artistic triumph for Porter and the TSO as well as a powerful tale from our American past, anyone who heard this electrifying performance of “Trail of Tears” is unlikely to forget it for a long, long time.