Notes and Editorial Reviews
Why is it that William Grant Still's music still lacks consistent advocacy by a major record label? Chandos recorded two symphonies, and here and there something turns up, but you would think that a composer with an idiom this attractive (Gershwin in classical forms), with such an impressive pedigree (he studied with Chadwick and Varèse) deserves more attention than the occasional one-off release. Two of the works here are world premieres. In Memoriam commemorates African-American sacrifice during the Second World War, and develops hauntingly modal melodic material in a manner quite strongly reminiscent of the English school of the same date (1943). It's very beautiful, grave but dignified, and not a note too long.
Africa, a three-movement symphonic poem completed in 1930 but not published in Still's lifetime, is a magnificent and imaginative fresco full of evocative sonorities for percussion and jazzy licks for the whole orchestra. The finale, Land of Superstition (the other movements are Land of Peace and Land of Romance), recalls Ellington in places, although as always with Still the control of form remains strong. It may be that Still regarded the music as too naïvely pictorial to capture the sweep of its subject, and so withheld it from publication, but taken on its own merits it's vintage stuff, with about 10 times more sheer character than plenty of better known music of the period. The Afro-American Symphony (Still wrote four symphonies in all) was intended as the middle work in a triptych of which Africa is the first item (Symphony No. 2 forms the conclusion). It has at least been recorded more than once, and by major artists (Stokowski above all). The banjo-led scherzo has an especially delicious period flavor.
Still's music isn't difficult to play. Like that of his colleague and supporter Howard Hanson (who premiered Africa, among other Still pieces), the music is written to sound well with orchestras of varying quality, and its melodic appeal is so strong that it almost always comes across as expressively satisfying. This is not to dismiss the efforts of the Fort Smith Symphony, a part-time but professionally constituted ensemble based in Arkansas. According to its website, the orchestra gives six major concerts a year, plus the usual series of holiday, pops, and children's events. A full-sized band with a full complement of strings (seven basses), it sounds just fine here under the dynamic leadership of John Jeter. He has the violins phrasing affectionately in the symphony's adagio and Africa's central Romance, and while the brass haven't quite the sheer oomph of Järvi's Detroit players (on Chandos), Jeter's involvement trumps Järvi's mere efficiency. The sonics also are quite natural, with plenty of impact at the climaxes and good internal balances. Whatever may be lacking in sheer polish (very little, actually--the woodwinds are particularly good) is more than made up for by the importance and attractiveness of the repertoire.
Now here's what I suggest to the intrepid folks in Fort Smith, who have every reason to be very proud of their achievement. Put together a series of Still programs over the next few years, and slowly make this a series. I have no doubt that it would be possible to attract the necessary sponsorship, nor do I doubt that Naxos would be happy to distribute the artistic results, and we'd naturally be pleased to review them. It would be a credit to the orchestra, the town, the state, the cause of promoting the music of one of this country's foremost African-American composers, and the cause of good music in general. So there you have it, a win-win situation, which you as music lovers can make even more attractive by dashing out and purchasing this very enjoyable recording. [4/28/2005]
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com Read less
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 1 "Afro-American" by William Grant Still
Fort Smith Symphony
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1930; USA
Africa by William Grant Still
Fort Smith Symphony
Period: 20th Century
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