Memphis Symphony's final Mastersworks concert masterful

Mei-Ann Chen
The Commercial Appeal

By Jon W. Sparks

The final Masterworks concerts of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra’s season were a robust, all-American affair.

The main event was maestro Mei-Ann Chen leading the orchestra in the Suite from “Porgy and Bess,” a rich array of the music from George Gershwin’s 1935 opera. The MSO performed the program Saturday night at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts and Sunday afternoon at the Germantown Performing Arts Center.

Sunday’s concert about blew the roof off GPAC with the orchestra, the Memphis Symphony Chorus and two soloists powering the American classic.

Soprano Taylor Johnson has enough power to fuel a mid-sized city. Her voice and control are mesmerizing as heard right off the bat in her take on “Summertime.”

Michael Preacely’s honeyed baritone was well-matched with Johnson, with superb inflection and loads of charm. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” was beautifully done and the two of them offered up a fine chemistry throughout the 40-minute suite.

The chorus was thrilling, as usual, with its discipline and expressiveness. Its artistic director Lawrence Edwards again deserves kudos for its success.

The orchestra played the Gershwin beautifully as it did the opening piece of the concert. Florence Price’s “Mississippi River Suite” is a 1934 work that is a confluence of cultural and musical themes that describe a historical journey along the river.

Price puts a lot into the tone poem, from sounds of nature to Native American music and several spirituals, from “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” to “Go Down, Moses.”

The Little Rock-born composer was the first African-American woman to gain national recognition for her classical works. The year before she composed “Mississippi River Suite,” she had her first symphony performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a huge achievement for a black woman in that day.

That symphony — and many of the considerable number of works she composed in her lifetime — was deservedly praised. The “Mississippi River Suite” is an interesting technical achievement although it’s more a dutiful expression of themes rather than a transcendent work of art.

It remains a thoroughly listenable piece and a superb choice for the MSO in advancing contemporary music, American composers and pieces of regional interest.