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Art exhibitions and related activities will continue for weeks to come at the 2011 National Black Arts Festival, but the main event ended over the weekend with music: jazz and gospel in Centennial Olympic Park on Saturday and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sunday.

In recent years, ASO Music Director Robert Spano has led these midsummer NBAF-Ebenezer concerts, often with exhilarating results. In the Horizon Sanctuary’s lively acoustic, and with a highly diverse audience — in race, age and cultural interests — the musicians have always seemed to open up, play out and, at their best, communicate the essence of the music. It’s always been a great evening and far beyond the expectation for a community concert. But with the ASO having eliminated almost all classical programming in the summer months, and with Spano taking the top job at the Aspen Music Festival, this Ebenezer performance didn’t live up to past accomplishments.

Conductor Charles Floyd

Charles Floyd, who guest-conducts around the country and has led the ASO in gospel Christmas shows, opened with Verdi’s Overture to “La forza del destino” in a shapeless reading, lacking direction and fire. It ambled along.

The hour-plus concert usually ends with a big symphony on a heroic or culturally inclusive or freedom-loving theme. Here the pattern was stretched a little with Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, nicknamed “Reformation” after the hefty reworking of Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” in the symphony’s finale. But we might call Mendelssohn’s Fifth “academic” in style, with lots of formal clarity and a rather joyless use of standard procedures, such as fugues and chorales. Floyd and the ASO gave it a pleasant run-through.

A key part of these concerts is partnering with Detroit’s Sphinx Organization, which helps foster African-American and Latino children in classical music. The winners of the annual Sphinx competition are usually headed for a substantive career.

Violist Paul Laraia — born in New Jersey, studied in Boston — was soloist this year with the ASO in Bruch’s F Major Romance, a lush and nostalgic meditation. Laraia produces a lovely tone on his viola, at once caramelly and airy, and he offers long phrases with lyricism and poise. Still at the very start of a career, he’s just about ready to land a spot in a great orchestra.

The other soloist was homegrown. Angelica Hairston began playing the harp at age 12. She was mentored in the ASO’s minority-centered Talent Development Program, an outstanding educational project in which promising youngsters are taught by ASO musicians. Hairston eventually joined the fine Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra as a harpist. She’s now a student at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory, on full scholarship. There’s a video of her performing a work for solo harp on YouTube.

Harpist Angelica Hairston, performing at a Talent Development Program recital in March. (Photo courtesy of the ASO)

Hairston played beautifully and convincingly with an unnamed pianist (playing a Roland electric keyboard) as soloists in the opening movement of William Grant Still’s “Ennanga” for harp, piano and orchestra. (The title refers to a type of Central African harp.)

The main goal of both Sphinx and the Talent Development Program is getting minority youngsters the high-level training they need to enter the best music schools and thus win auditions into professional orchestras. Progress has been slow. There are still very few black or Latino musicians in U.S. orchestras — despite auditioning behind a screen (originally designed to block gender bias). But we might soon see the fruits of these programs as the first full generation comes of age.

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