By David Patrick Stearns
A rehearsal or two from now, the piece will be heard in a larger program at 8 p.m. Friday at Church of the Holy Trinity. As of Tuesday, though, it was well on its way, thanks partly to violin soloist Hirono Oka, in an intermissionless all-American evening with the relaxed sense of fun that music director Karl Middleman strives for but sometimes loses in his more sprawling programs.
Wright, a longtime fixture on the Temple University faculty, has the sort of solidity that allows him to take on such a deceptively daunting project as Wissahickon Scenes. Native American melodies aren't unknown in classical music--Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 has them, but in highly massaged form. Enlightened notions of ethnic respect demand something closer to the source, which can lead to an aesthetic collision: Native American art is unmediated by the Greek classicism underlying Euro-based art; thus, the music lacks symmetry and tonal centers. It can seem randomly made up on the spot.
Not true, of course--a point underscored by the American Philosophical Society, which made Lenape field recordings available to Wright and is also holding a "Native American Voices" conference this week in Philadelphia. Still, Native American melodies also have a lot of repeated notes that don't meld well with Euro-based, goal-oriented functional harmony. Wright's solution was aesthetic coexistence; it felt fairly natural in our post-postmodern age, while also maintaining a contrast suggestive of the different universe Native Americans inhabited.