BISMARCK, N.D. (KXNET) — When many of us think of the culture surrounding North Dakota, images of the country, ranching, Powwows, and sprawling farmland come to mind. When one looks at this, it’s important to know that it developed from a merging of multiple ideals — both ancient and modern. The Native American traditions, over time, have fused with the urbanization and industrialization of newer North Dakotans to create a culture unique to the state. It’s this fusion of old and new practices across the US that led to the development of the latest performance by the Bismarck-Mandan Symphony Orchestra — Between Two Cultures, which merges indigenous and imported styles to create a truly unique show. So unique, in fact, that it’s the orchestra’s first time performing such a collection too.
“We’ve been looking forward to this concert for a while,” explains Bismarck-Mandan Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director Beverly Everett. “All of the music on tonight’s concert is new to me, new to our orchestra, and hopefully, new to our audience.”
True to the name, Between Two Cultures is a show that fuses Native American traditional chants and imagery with classical music and a full orchestra in a unique and enchanting evening of performance. The program opened with a tonal poem entitled ‘The Wolves of Yellowstone’, composed by Dr. John Darling, Professor of Music at Bismarck State College. This piece was accompanied by a video, and recounts in music the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park.
Following this, a series of musical pieces inspired by Native American artwork and history was displayed in a series of works known as ‘Between Two Cultures’. These pieces of music, created by a collaboration between Dr. Russell Peterson and Native artist Star Wallowing Bull, are inspired by Star’s art. This was succeeded by a set of Waktegli Olowan (Victory Songs) — traditional Native American victory and battle songs. During these songs, the orchestra was accompanied by vocals from Dr. Jason Thoms — the Founder and Artistic Director of Dakota Pro Musica and Director of Choral Activities at Bismarck State College — who sang the tales of five historic Native chieftains (Red Cloud, Two-Strike, Gall, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull)
“I perform so often in music,” explains Thoms. “It really is part of what I do, but it’s also a good identifying feature of who I am. When I’m performing the Victory Songs with the symphony, it really helps identify me as someone who really wants to learn about others — and to share these amazing different chiefs and the stories, music, and language of the Lakota with the community of Bismarck.”
Thoms may not be of Lakota descent himself, but he is taking every step possible to guarantee that the vocals in the war chants are accurate. He has worked with members of the Lakota tribe to ensure that the songs are performed with as much accuracy as possible.
“One of the things I’ve worked hard at since I’ve lived in North Dakota is to begin to understand Native American music and how it’s used within their communities and culture,” explains Thoms. “In doing so, I discovered these pieces, and recommended them to the Symphony. A lot of people talk about music as an international language, but really, it’s very central to a community and a culture.”
While Thoms considers it an honor to bring these songs to the stage, it is also a lot of responsibility, and requires a careful hand to approach blending cultures with the respect and skill they each deserve.
“To be able to combine western ideas like a Symphony with Native American songs can be tricky,” says Thoms, “but performing them as well as possible can also be just as tricky. You have to know the language, the history, and the importance of the songs. It takes a lot of work to be able to perform music that bridges different cultures and communities because you have to do it in an honest and truthful way.”
Despite the difficulties in blending different styles, both Everett and Thoms recognize the importance of music across cultures, and put their utmost care into performing a symphony which combines them. This fusion of all sorts of music from composers all across the world serves to further the theme of genres stretching across generations and cultures.
The show concluded with a performance of ‘Violin Concerto in G Minot Op. 80’ by Samuel Coleridge – Taylor. While Taylor himself was a British composer, he, as a black musician in the classical era, was a committed advocate for racial equality and often shared the music of different cultures. It’s the hope of those involved with this week’s performance that showcasing each of these different forms of music and setting them against the same backdrop can really help the audience — and the performers — take in how cultures so different can come together in song.
“All of music is telling a story one way or another,” states Everett, “and whether it’s the Lion King or one of the Lakota Victory Songs, it’s still telling some kind of a story. I approach it all the same as a conductor… the main goal is that we want our music to reach the hearts of our audience.”
And reach them it did: the performance was met with a standing ovation.
The Bismarck-Mandan Symphony Orchestra has plenty of additional concerts remaining in the year. To view a full list and learn more about the group, visit their website.