Concert Review: Native American Inspirations

October 21, 2019: Native American Inspirations: PostClassical Ensemble presents the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra Lakota Music Project (Washington National Cathedral)

By Emily Wright

When he was eleven years old, Emmanuel Black Bear lost his mother to a drunk driver—an event that sent him into a place of heartache, on a search for meaning. When his voice rang out, plaintive and clear, in the chapel of DC’s National Cathedral, the unusually animated audience stopped fiddling with their programs and shifting in their seats. He was singing “Guide Me,” a work he says helped him get through life during a time when nothing made sense in the wake of his mother’s passing. That’s the thing about music: It has the potential to cross the boundaries of culture and evoke kinship between total strangers. It’s been said so many times as to sound cliché, but Black Bear’s singular performance, accompanied by members of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, reached out and gripped the hearts of those in attendance, many of whom sat with tears streaming down their faces. It was, to say the least, an evening full of surprises.


This concert was part of the DC-based Postclassical Ensemble’s continuing mission to highlight unfamiliar works, and represents the first time these artists, collectively referred to as the Lakota Music Project, have played outside of South Dakota. Music director Delta David Gier curates the personnel and programming with a sense of hope for the future—that through artistic collaboration and audience education, there can be increased cultural understanding and a lessening of tensions between indigenous people and other Americans. If the rapport onstage is any indicator, the initiative is a staggering success.

The program began with Arthur Farwell’s Hako String Quartet. Farwell (1872–1952) was perhaps the most prominent of the “Indianists,” a movement that gained popularity in fin de siècle American classical-music circles. Sometimes mentioned alongside Bartók and his work with Magyar folk music, Farwell’s efforts came from a decidedly respectful (if perhaps naïve) place, living for years among Native Americans around Lake Superior, meticulously transcribing their music and tracing the curves of their cultural traditions. Hako is not an approximation of indigenous music. It is a piece very much of its time, and sounds as much.


Farwell’s treatise centers around the idea that American music should be influenced by—wait for it—Americans. Otherwise, it’s a continuation of Euro-centrism. So while nobody will accuse the Indianist movement of authenticity, Farwell pays respect to the traditions he invokes by treating them as culturally essential, not novel or “other.” And while I’m supposed to remain objective as a reviewer, the Dakota String Quartet made it completely impossible during their stunning performance of Hako. Their communication and effortless facility was a powerful intoxicant throughout the single 20-minute movement. In a space that could have easily turned into an echo chamber, violinists Doosook Kim and Magdalena Modzelewska managed every icy upper register and each dovetailing theme with total clarity. Cellist Robbie Erhard and violist Yi-Chun Lin’s dynamic control was a clinic in understatement, never bellowing, always creating space and balance as it was called for, trading melodic snippets and rhythmic interjections with the practiced grace of a Martha Graham dancer: things that should be impossible, but are made to look easy—utterly natural.


Curt Cacioppo’s dynamic string quartet Kinaaldá: The Rite of Changing Woman featured a decidedly contemporary sensibility that sounded as much the stuff of soundtracks as the Navajo rite of passage that was its inspiration. Perhaps it was the lengthy preface the non-Native American composer gave about the matrilineal structure of Navajo succession that set things spinning in this other direction—in a concert that was supposed to revolve around indigenous voices, the optics and experience of this interjection were uncomfortable. In the end, it would cause the performance to be cut short, costing the audience Emmanuel Black Bear’s rendition of Amazing Grace.

Master cedar flutist, teacher, and champion traditional dancer Bryan Akipa was an enduring presence throughout the evening, playing during the intermission and on several ensemble works, including Wind on Clear Lake, which was pure programmatic joy, evoking rippling water and swishing stalks of tall grass. Akipa’s composition was given its chamber setting by SDSO principal oboist Jeffrey Paul, and provided perhaps the most visceral example of the project’s purpose. The cedar flute does not orbit the sun of A=440, and as such, seemed at first to play in a place of its own, alarmingly separate from the other musicians as Akipa’s tone soared and buffeted as if it was gliding on an updraft provided by the other musicians. It took some getting used to, releasing the idea that these contrasting systems of pitch resulted in a dissonance. This moment, this compositional collaboration, embodies fully the mission of the Lakota Music Project itself, demonstrating that differences do not necessitate discord if only a moment is taken to appreciate the things we have in common.