(NOTE: This article will appear in The Delius Society Journal.)
Jacksonville, Florida was a vibrant tourist destination until 1901, when, regrettably, a major conflagration largely razed it to the ground. What rose up to replace it has now become the USA’s largest city (by area).
It is not the most beautiful place on earth, and probably not the
first destination you would consider for a holiday. But each year,
1961, it has an irresistible attraction – a festival devoted to Delius
who, of course, from 1884, lived for a couple of years nearby at Solano
Grove, having been sent there by his father to grow oranges.
The programme for this year’s festival seemed particularly attractive and full, so I packed my bags and arrived in time for the opening event, a boat trip on the St Johns River. It was a spectacular evening, thoughtfully timed to coincide with the kind of brilliant sunset over the water that Delius would have witnessed many times. As the sun went down in a gorgeous display of reds, purples and pinks, the Sunset movement from the Florida Suite was piped over the PA. Quite magical – and the achievement of a long held ambition by the man who was the backbone of this, and many other, Festivals – Jesse G. Wright Jr, the Association’s energetic President.
David Lloyd Jones, who was to conduct the centre-piece concert with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, gave a small speech as we enjoyed our on-board cocktails, in which he pointed out that Delius would have been much impressed by the sheer scale of the St Johns River – three miles wide at some points – much bigger than anything he would have seen in Europe, and this would have influenced the way he described it in his music. It was indeed “a mighty, mighty stream”.
The convivial evening brought us back to the sumptuous conference hotel, the Adam’s Mark, right on the river side, from where dolphins could be seen each morning making their stately way through the brackish waters.
On Friday came an extraordinary event – the Friday Musicale. This is quite a “society” occasion – although very welcoming - and a great Jacksonville institution. It even has its own small concert hall, a replacement for one which burned down a few years ago. Unfortunately, fires do seem to be a recurring feature of Jacksonville history.
The Friday Musicale concert we attended was performed by the Solano Singers, directed by Brenda McNeiland, with Rachael Clinton at the piano. Opening with Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda by Holst, the rest of the ambitious programme was devoted to Delius. It included The Splendour Falls on Castle Walls, The Chorus of Young Men and Women from Irmelin, two of the Songs of Farewell, selections from Hassan and two variations from Appalachia.
The performance was, in the main, quite enchanting, but it was clear that this music was not part of the choir’s usual repertoire and there were a few tension-inducing moments of uncertainty from some of the younger singers.
If that weren’t enough excitement for any Delian, in the afternoon we were invited to a cocktail reception at the Delius House, relocated from Solano Grove to the campus of Jacksonville University. What a thrill not only to stand in the house and see the piano on which Delius reputedly worked, but also to be surrounded by other charming and enthusiastic Delians from all over the USA.
It was a pleasantly warm evening, made even more so when we repaired to the university’s Kinne Centre to enjoy the Festival Dinner. (Although I don’t know what Delius would have made of the rather ostentatious prayer that preceded the feast, thanking God for our atheistic hero’s music!).
Having booked tickets for a concert in the Times Union Centre for the Performing Arts in downtown Jacksonville, we sadly had to forego the after-dinner liqueurs that were served in a candle lit Delius House (and yes, all the jokes about the wooden cottage becoming another destination for the Jacksonville fire department were made, and said catastrophe duly avoided).
The following lunch time found us at the Ritz Theatre and LaVilla Museum, where an excellent meal was served. The Ritz has a fascinating history, as does the area of Jacksonville in which it is situated, LaVilla. (Find out more by logging on here http://www.coj.net/Departments/Ritz+Theatre+and+La+Villa+Museum/Ritz+Theatre.htm)
LaVilla boasted a rich African-American culture during the 19th century, earning it the nickname ‘the Harlem of the South’. In the museum are many exhibits celebrating this unique history of black emancipation. Perhaps the most extraordinary is a show called “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” which tells the story of James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson, who composed many of the popular songs of the day and who soon found themselves writing Broadway shows. Much more importantly, James was also a courageous statesman and poet, as well as a teacher and writer. His energy and commitment greatly progressed the breaking down of the almost intractable barriers of racial segregation that surrounded so many of his fellow African-Americans.
The brothers’ story is told by two full-sized animatronic models that are so life-like and move with such realism that it was difficult to imagine that we weren’t sharing the room with the Johnson brothers in person rather than two highly sophisticated robotic models.
The story of James and John is inspiring, and it is told with much pride and affection by the volunteers who run the museum.
Then came a talk by Jeff Driggers, the honorary Life Director of the Delius Association of Florida. When James Weldon Johnson’s ‘Autobiography of an ex-Coloured Man’ was translated into German, Frederick Delius wrote the preface for it. Jeff reflected on the potential coincidences which Delius’ preface suggests. James Weldon Johnson was born in 1871 and would have been reaching his teens when Delius was also in Jacksonville. Johnson’s career as a poet and songwriter in collaboration with his brother began in the same locale which inspired Delius. Jeff said it was possible – although not probable – that the two men had met. At least it can be said that the Jacksonville of those days was indeed an important influence on these two artists of the earliest twentieth century.
Then came another choral concert given by the J.W. Honeysucker Community Choir and the H. Alvin Green Memorial Alumni Chorale, under Patricia Black. This time we were treated to some of the songs that Delius just might have heard as the workers on his orange grove, and on the docks in Jacksonville, went about their business. It was a spirited and joyous rendition by a choir that obviously loved the music.
This was followed by the Fenby Lecture, this year given by Derek Healey, who has undertaken a 20 year research into the influence of late 19th Century African-American music on Delius. Characteristics include the composer’s use of various African-American musical devices such as the cakewalk rhythm, blues notes, various types of triplet ornaments, as well as unique melody patterns. Derek accompanied his lecture with musical examples on disc and with the aid of a solo voice. He accepted that much of what he was proposing was speculative, and I have to admit that I found some bits of it more convincing than others.
The following day, Sunday, found us making an early start for the forty-mile journey south from Jacksonville, along the freeway and eventually up a dirt road through dense subtropical vegetation to find Solano Grove in a clearing on the banks of the St John’s River. There stands a splendid monument to Delius. We enjoyed a delightful picnic by the monument, serenaded by a recording of Appalachia, emanating from someone’s car stereo.
The place may be off the beaten track, but the isolation is not quite as it once was. Nearby neighbours are beginning to encroach.
Some anxiety was expressed about a rumour that Jacksonville University, which owns the grove, is suffering a financial crisis and is considering selling it. No one could confirm the veracity of this rumour, but it seemed to reflect a feeling that the Jacksonville Festival, too, may soon be under threat.
Many of the members of the Delius Association of Florida, who have given the society a great deal of service over the years, are now very elderly. It is unclear whether the organisers of this year’s event will want to continue much longer – given the enormous amount of energy and time, not to mention frustration - that must have gone into organising this marvellous celebration.
Whatever its future, the 2004 Festival came to a stunning conclusion with a concert by the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra at the breathtaking Times Union Center for the Perfoming Arts, Jacoby Hall. This ultra modern and capacious concert hall is a proud achievement for the City, although this concert drew far from a capacity audience.
The programme – conducted by David Lloyd-Jones, who is also a trustee of the Delius Trust - got off to an exuberant start with Chabrier’s Marche Joyeuse. Then followed the world premiere performance of Two Negro Songs by Delius, which were only recently discovered. The full story of their reappearance was contained in the Autumn 2001 Delius Journal, in an article written by Robert Threlfall. The first, “I will meet you when the sun goes down” is familiar from the opera Koanga. The second, “Let Us Dance Tonight” features pizzicato strings that brought to mind the Plantation Dance in the third movement of the Florida Suite. The songs were beautifully sung by The Edward Waters College Concert Choir.
There then followed, appropriately enough, the Florida Suite.
After the interval, we were treated to the American Rhapsody, which was later extensively revised– along the way losing its allusions to “Dixie” and “Yankee Doodle” - to become Appalachia.
The show ended with a somewhat muted rendition of the Grieg piano concerto, with Scott Watkins as the soloist. It’s a pity that the programmers didn’t give us the Delius Piano Concerto at this point – that would have been the icing on the cake, but I suppose there had been hopes of attracting a larger audience by plumping for the Grieg war horse.
All that was left now, was the farewell reception, when email addresses were exchanged and reunions promised.
I was mightily impressed by the organisation of this Festival, by the easy-going friendliness of the participants and the true southern hospitality that I have heard so much about, but have now experienced at first hand. My hope is that the enthusiasm of the present incumbents of the Delius Association of Florida can be transmitted to a new generation, who can keep alive the memory of Delius’s time in their town.
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