Mells' Symphony No.1 in D Minor
March 06, 2023
* Notes *
One Found Sound, a musician-run orchestra without a conductor, launched its Herbert Franklin Mells Project with a premiere of his Symphony No. 1 in D minor last Saturday night at Heron Arts in San Francisco. Dr. Mells (1908-1953) was prevented from publishing his work in his lifetime, despite the fact that he received a Ph.D. in composition with a focus on orchestral music, the first black man to do so.
The piece, from 1938, is tuneful and comic. Things start off neatly with a Moderato, showing a sense of humor from the beginning. The Adagio that follows is pretty, though I was distracted a bit by the unfocused brass, the space, an art gallery, makes the instruments both very loud and diffuse. I enjoyed the amusing Scherzo, that had lots of pizzicato. The final Allegro was bright. The woodwind and string soli all were strong, I particularly liked hearing the first cello. The orchestra has a great sense of fun and playfulness. It certainly piques one's curiosity, and it's worth the effort to hear Mells' other works in the coming years.
The parts for the orchestra were put together by Dr. R. James Whipple, professor of music theory at Carnegie Mellon University and his students, and they will be published, along with recordings of this piece and future ones as part of this project.
The orchestra also played Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, Op. 62, which was played with both drama and urgency and Quinn Mason's Reflection On A Memorial, which was contemplative and viola-heavy, always of interest to this former violist.
The venue lent the performance a more informal and intimate feel than most classical music settings, we were on the same floor as the standing musicians, and there were almost as many people "on stage" as off. There was paper sculptures on the walls by Zai Divecha, the current exhibition at Heron Arts. One Found Sound also had projections above the orchestra and on the sides, mostly of candle flames for the Mason, and a painting of Mells for his symphony.
* Tattling *
We were encouraged to respond as moved to by Sarah Bonomo, co-founder and clarinetist of the orchestra. So laughing, clapping, taking pictures or video were all allowed.
Dr. Mells' grandson, bass-baritone Eugene Perry, was in attendance, as were other members of the family including a daughter of the composer and a granddaughter. Perry addressed the audience and gave us an introduction to the piece.