Feb. 27 2013 12:00 AM

Lansing Symphony chaperones a heavy classical-jazz date

Photo by John Douglas Photography
After a while, you can tell when musicians are “excited to be doing X” because it’s their default mode and when they really are a little bit on fire.

Composer Brian Gaber, a professor at Florida State University, is the creator of “Ancestral Waters,” a hybrid classical-jazz-African piece that weaves a soprano soloist, a jazz trio and a symphony orchestra into a multi-layered reverie on the African-American experience.

Right now, about 20 readers are surely warbling to themselves, “Uhhh, I don’t know about this,” for 20 different reasons. But be warned that symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt is on fire with this piece— he is out to convince.

“It’s unlike anything else I know out there,” Muffitt said. “It flows so perfectly from one idiom to the next that these styles are perfectly matched. It’s really an inspired piece.”

Muffitt premiered “Ancestral Waters” in January with his other band, the Baton Rouge Symphony, and Saturday’s guest soloist, Allison Sanders.

Gaber’s piece will be part of a larger lesson in American music Saturday night. While teaching in New York in 1892, folk music-loving Czech composer Antonin Dvorak fell in love with African-American spirituals. He urged American composers to stop letting bossy Germans run the show and instead base “the future music of this country” on the uniquely American sound of “Negro melodies.” (They didn’t seem to listen. Last month, the Detroit Symphony wrapped up another big Beethoven festival.)

To show ‘em how it could be done, Dvorak packed his “New World” Symphony — the other big work on Saturday’s slate — with African-American-inspired tunes.

But black musicians, shut out of concert halls and conservatories by racism in Dvorak’s day, took the culture for a wild ride in a different machine. Fast forward, through ragtime, jazz, R&B and hip hop to 2013, and classical-jazz hybrids are still an anomaly. Outside of a pops concert, how often do you see a jazz combo unpack next to the Lansing Symphony? Never, until drummer Larry Ochiltree, guitarist Neil Gordon and Lansing Symphony principal bassist-and-jazzman Ed Fedewa park their axes on stage Saturday. Tympani, meet trap drums, meet djembe. 

“Brian fulfilled exactly what Dvorak said American composers should be doing, and he’s done it in a way appropriate for the 21st century,” Muffitt said.

The first cause of this confluence is African-American poet Langston Hughes’ groundwater-deep poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” a masterpiece written when Hughes was only 18. As soon as Gaber heard its evocation of “ancient, dusky rivers” stretching from antiquity to the time of Abraham Lincoln, he longed to set it to music.

But now is as good a time as any to get an awkward question out of the way. Gaber isn’t black. Qualms?

“That is a great question, maybe THE question, and I’ve thought about it for a long time,” Gaber said. “The first thing I’d say to that is, any one of us can feel compassion for any other.”

Far from hijacking Hughes’ verse, Gaber said, he wanted to do it justice.

“That comes from a personal voice, from a people to which I do not belong,” he said. “All I’m doing is taking these beautiful words and wrapping them in music. The story that’s being told is not being told by me. They’re just stories that I find compelling.”

The endless divergences and convergences of American music have a lot in common with the flow of rivers. With years of experience playing in jazz orchestras and other combos, Gaber wanted to go with the flow. A traditional “classical” setting wouldn’t do. A confluence could make for a choppy ride, but it was worth trying.

The trick, to Gaber, is not to muddy the waters.

“Let jazz be jazz and classical be classical, and just put them in the same space,” he said.

While the trio swings, the orchestra sticks to the spacious, bittersweet sounds associated with American composers like Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber. (Barber’s “First Essay for Orchestra” will set the table for Saturday’s mixer, also by design.)

“No one’s asked to step out of their comfort zone,” Muffitt said. “It’s not like the orchestra is being asked to play faux jazz.”

Gaber found the capstone to “Ancestral Waters” when he came upon “The Old Sea Chain,” a poem by Joe Coleman de Graft, a writer from Ghana in West Africa, who died in 1978.

“It was like the other bookend,” Gaber said. “It describes what slavery was like when you’re the one on the African shore seeing people taken away. They’re both very beautiful poems, and they just seemed to fit together.”

As the piece winds down, it flows back to its source. Gaber quotes a traditional Hausa song from Ghana, sung to lament the dead, with djembe and agogo bells (African percussion) added to the mix.

Finally, he inserted a wordless middle movement, “Prayer.” Allison Sanders, a warm-voiced mezzo-soprano based in Philadelphia, said she has trouble holding it together while singing the “ooo” in the middle part.

“It feels solemn but hopeful,” she said. “I’m almost moved to tears every time.”

She has a different problem during the outer two movements.

“I have to check myself when the jazz trio comes in because I’m blown away,” she said. “I want to groove out, and I really can’t do that.”

Sanders grew up in the South and lived in Birmingham and Memphis, cradle of the Civil Rights movement. She’s only 25, but said that Gaber’s music helped her understand some history.

“A lot of times I forget about the struggles that came before me,” she said. “I go about my life and feel so lucky to do what I do. This piece came along, and when I delved into it, it was very touching for me.”

It matters “not at all” to her that Gaber isn’t black.

“I’m glad the music and text is out there and it’s being performed,” she said. “People are getting an understanding and a feeling they might not have gotten otherwise. I could care less what the source is.”

Lansing Symphony Orchestra
Masterworks V:
Dvorak’s New World
Allison Sanders, mezzo soprano
8 p.m.
March 2
Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall