A magnificent musical evening
The island's already rich musical heritage got richer on Saturday when the Philharmonic Orchestra of Jamaica (POJ) was officially launched at the University of the West Indies chapel. Created in May 2013, the POJ has already performed in Kingston, Montego Bay and Mandeville, but the official launch was special in that it comprised an all-Jamaican programme of music.
"I thought it important to launch the orchestra with Jamaican music," POJ founding member and conductor Franklin Halliburton told The Gleaner," not that great composers like Mozart, Bach and Beethoven will be ignored."
He was implying that Jamaica, too, has its "classical" compositions - compositions which are textured, multi-layered and segmented, some even with formal "movements." Halliburton not only found enough of them to fill a solid two hours, but they were played and sung with such magnificence that there was a standing ovation by the full chapel when the concert ended. The ovation was both for the composers and the performers, the latter being the POJ and the chorale groups accompanying it, the Jamaica Choral Scholars and a combined schools' choir. Members of the school choirs came from 15 Corporate Area educational institutions, ranging from primary to high schools.
Not surprisingly, the composers for the auspicious occasion were all well-known Jamaican musicians. In order of the compositions presented, they were Jon Williams, Peter Ashbourne, Oswald Russell, Theodor 'Ted' Alardo Runcie, Andrew Marshall and Paulette Bellamy.
That list of names could be misleading unless one knew that most of the composers based the works performed on Saturday (and at the follow-up concert on Sunday) on the creations of other important Jamaican musicians, known and unknown. The Williams work, for example, was the Marley Symphony, which transforms a number of Bob Marley's Reggae songs into orthodox 'classical' pieces.
And Russell's composition, Three Jamaican Dances, is based on Jamaican folksongs, including Sammy Plant Piece a Corn and Ruckumbine. Bellamy's contributions were her arrangements for Jackass a Jump an Bray and Daylight at Solas Market. One of Runcie's two compositions was Two Maroon Folksongs of Jamaica; while Marshall's Nyabinghi Symphony is based on the indigenous Nyabinghi rhythm and the words of a Marcus Garvey poem, Africa's Love.
Soloists were Roger N. Williams (piano), who played the Russell piece; Dr Althea Neblett (oboe), who played Ashbourne's The Hidden Garden, which was dedicated to those who died in the 2010 Tivoli Gardens incursion; and Rafael Salazar (clarinet), who played the Runcie composition, accompanied by Williams.
The children's choir sang I Pledge My Heart, the words of which were written by Jamaican novelist Vic Reid. Halliburton arranged the music (by Gustav Holst, the only non-Jamaican composer featured), which was adapted for orchestra by Bellamy.
In a post-performance interview, Marshall told The Gleaner that when the POJ asked him to write a special composition he immediately decided to base it on indigenous material. That decision led him to Rastafarian music, specifically its drums, and also to National Hero Marcus Garvey.
He said he was happy with the enthusiastic reception that the symphony has been receiving; Saturday's performance was the fourth time since its composition in 2013. "I hope it will prove to be a window to our culture for the world," Marshall added.
The conductors for the evening were Halliburton, Marshall and Albert Shaun Hird, the POJ's associate conductor.