F-M Symphony finds a hit with new voices and unfamiliar works

Season-opening concert is one of the most exciting in recent years.

Music Director Christopher Zimmerman and the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra open the season this weekend.
Contributed / Scott Thuen
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FARGO — Introducing Antonin Dvořák’s “Symphony No. 5” at Saturday’s Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra concert, Music Director Christopher Zimmerman predicted the crowd would ask itself, “Why isn’t this piece played more often?”

True, but the same needs to be said of the first three pieces of the night, all works by female Black composers. Those works by Jessie Montgomery, Valerie Coleman and Florence Price paved the way for one of the most exciting FMSO concerts in recent years.

The concert, titled “Hear Our Voices Ring,” will be performed again at 2 p.m. Sunday at Festival Concert Hall, North Dakota State University.

Zimmerman and the FMSO have long worked to include diversity in concert programming. By going all in for the first half, the conductor dealt a winning hand.

What made the concert so wonderful wasn’t any one virtuosic talent in the spotlight, though Zimmerman had the FMSO musicians playing up to their normally high standards. Rather, what shone at Saturday’s concert was just how fresh and exciting it is to hear new voices, new perspectives and a very engaging experience.


The F-M Symphony Orchestra will kick off its season Saturday, Sept. 24, with “Hear Our Voices Ring,” a performance highlighting the works of three Black female composers.

Sure, there were still old, dead white guys like Dvořák and Francis Scott Key.

The evening opened with a bang with Montgomery’s “Banner.” Meant to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Key writing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the composer reflected on those who may find the American dream out of reach.

She deconstructs the tune for the string orchestra, taking a rousing anthem and turning it sideways, having sections play off each other creating contrast and even a little chaos. There are moments of conflict and moments of harmony with familiar strains from the tune fading in and out.

At one point the strings play as if they are deflating, then inflating followed by rapid fire riffing from the violas playing like a field snare. This is followed by foot stomping, then the bassists slapping rhythms on the bodies of their instruments before the song ends suddenly and energetically, a stirring effect.

Fargo author Laetitia Mizero Hellerud. Forum file photo

Making it more evocative was pre-song commentary by Laetitia Mizero Hellerud. A native of Burundi, Mizero Hellerud came to the United States 24 years ago this weekend and days later became the first Burundi family to resettle in North Dakota. As a Black former immigrant, she has her own complex feelings about “The Star Spangled Banner,” but still sees a space to celebrate working toward a more perfect union.

Hellerud, the executive director of the Jeremiah Program, Fargo-Moorhead, spoke before each of the first three works, explaining that Coleman’s “Umoja” is Swahili fo “unity.” The song lives up to its name, with sections playing together instead of opposed to each other, like “Banner.”

Florence Price’s “Ethiopia’s Shadow in America” rounded out the first half with a whirlwind musical take on the African-American experience. Beginning with a dark, foreboding tone, Price evokes the years of slavery before things brighten up with the second movement. The third section incorporates American Black music from the first part of the 20th Century, as the piece was written in 1932. There’s elements of jazz, ragtime and spirituals, like the strains of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."

Price’s story is fascinating. She was celebrated in her time and the first African-American woman to have her work performed by a major American orchestra, only to be largely forgotten after she died. Since a sizable amount of her work was rediscovered — literally, it was found in her abandoned summer home — in 2009, 56 years after she died, orchestras have started playing her music again.


Price’s use of popular music of the time made for a connection to Dvořák, who is best known for weaving folk music in his compositions. His fifth symphony is a lovely, pastoral piece and was a treat to hear, especially since no one in the FMSO, including Zimmerman, had ever played it before.

Still, it sounded like the work of an old, dead white guy, whereas the first three compositions came from voices most FMSO fans hadn’t heard, but were enthralled by.

So, the question remains, “Why aren’t these pieces played more often?” The FMSO has proven it’s open to new, different voices, now music fans need to come to the concerts.

If you go

What: FM Symphony Orchestra

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Festival Concert Hall, NDSU

Info: Tickets from $32 to $50


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