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Classical File

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 14, 2002

AFRICAN HERITAGE SYMPHONIC SERIES, VOLUME II; CHICAGO SINFONIETTA/PAUL FREEMAN (CEDILLE); BLACK COMPOSERS SERIES; DETROIT SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA/PAUL FREEMAN (SONY/DSO) -- Let us now praise Paul Freeman, who has done more for African-American classical music than any conductor. In the 1970s, Freeman was responsible for a pathbreaking set of nine LPs for CBS, the Black Composers Series, which introduced many listeners to the substantial contributions of African-American composers from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Freeman is revisiting that historic project with a new series of recordings by his Chicago Sinfonietta, and the second volume was recently released on the Cedille label. At the same time, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has reissued its original performances in the CBS series.

Two works are heard on both releases, and the differences between them are illuminating. A slightly revised version of Roque Cordero's Eight Miniatures for Small Orchestra sounds lighter and more nimble in the new recording than in the Detroit performance in the '70s. On the other hand, the older performance of Hale Smith's intricate, mysterious Ritual and Incantations benefits from the Detroit Symphony's expert percussion play, which has a crispness that isn't matched by the Chicago Sinfonietta.

A highlight of the Sinfonietta's release is George Walker's Lyric for Strings, a lushly beautiful elegy. Adolphus Hailstork's An American Port of Call is a colorful, high-spirited treat. Also on the new recording are Hailstork's Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed, a memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Ulysses Kay's overture to Theater Set.

Freeman was resident conductor of the Detroit Symphony when the original series was produced, and he led the orchestra in what became Hailstork's most popular work, Celebration! The reissue also has an outstanding performance of Walker's Piano Concerto by soloist Natalie Hinderas, one of the first African-American women to appear with a major orchestra. The middle movement, with its jazzy piano riffs, muted trumpet and dirgelike strings, is an homage to Duke Ellington. The Detroit two-CD set can be purchased online for $18 from the orchestra at Chicago Sinfonietta: A; Detroit Symphony: A

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