Often referred to as the "dean of African-American composers", William Grant Still received many honors for his pioneering music for the concert platform, film and television. Still's most distinctive works use African-American forms such as the blues, spirituals and jazz within a neo-romantic idiom. He declared that his 'Fourth Symphony' was "intended to represent the spirit of the American people", an idee fixe unifying its four contrasting movements into an appealing whole. His triumphant 'Fifth Symphony' celebrates "the sharing of resources and achievements" which the composer saw as the key to America's greatness.
Musical Pantheism with an American voice
This new release in Naxos’s American Classics series continues to provide the best possible advocacy for the American composer William Grant Still. Having the Fort Smith Symphony play this music brings authenticity to the project, since the Mississippi-born Still grew up in Arkansas. But this was a very sophisticated and urbane composer – he hung out with people like Edgard Varese, Paul Whiteman, and the Hollywood film music community – so it’s nice to hear the high level of polish that Conductor John Jeter can bring out in his musicians.
The music on this disc comes from relatively late in Still’s career, so it doesn’t have quite the bite and piquancy of his earlier orchestral music, or as many references to jazz or blues. This music is mellow, placid, pastoral, sounding more like Copland than Gershwin. Still often uses stately and majestic phrases, and he wraps the music (after the fact) in overarching programs which reflect his strong connection to the earth.
The Fourth Symphony, for example, is called “Autochtonous”. That means "Indigenous", by the way, but this isn't Indianist music like Villa-Lobos's Choros #10 or Chavez's Symphony #2. It’s more a picture of the “American spirit”, with musical pictures of the American character as it is expressed in the land. The Fifth Symphony is subtitled “Western Hemisphere”, and its program makes reference to “Latin America, Canada, and the islands of the Western Seas.” There’s more musical landscape painting here, including a very impressive tropical scene dripping with atmosphere. I wonder if Still was acquainted with the Latin American composers that Aaron Copland hung out with, or if he knew the music of Canada’s Harry Somers. Not that it matter much; this Symphony is very much in the personal voice of William Grant Still.
The 1944 Poem for Orchestra is at the centre of this disc, and it has my vote for the William Grant Still work that breaks through into the general orchestral repertoire. It has a brisk forward momentum and a moving climax of transfiguration. At the same time it shows off an orchestra’s capabilities in a nice compact tone poem that would fit nicely in a wide range of orchestral programs.
Kudos to Naxos for another in a long line of World Premiere recordings. Once again they’ve delivered a CD with the highest musical and technical standards, in a great presentation, and at a great price.
Submitted on 12/03/09 by Dean Frey