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A Most Peculiar Composer

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
03/22/2009 -  
William Grant Still: Darker America – Africa – Symphony No. 2 in G minor: Song of a New Race
George Whitefield Chadwick: Rip Van Winkle Overture (1879)
Edgard Varėse: Offrandes

Jennifer Rivera (Mezzo-soprano)
American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein (Music Director)

The name of Leon Botstein’s newest foray into musical obscurity was called “Revisiting William Grant Still”, an unfortunate assumption, since few in Lincoln Centre yesterday afternoon had ever paid a visit to the composer at all.

This didn’t prevent Mr. Botstein from presenting three works by this most strange artist, as well as two works by Still’s teachers. Familiar with his works or not, Mr. Still was, during his long life (he was born in 1895, and died just 31 years ago), a prominent African-American composer . He certainly had much innate talent, but made wrong moves, quite consciously and with great gusto.

Musically, he felt that it was degrading to write jazz (though he did work with Gershwin, orchestrated W.C. Handy, and even wrote music for the Yiddish entertainer Sophie Tucker.) He condemned Marian Anderson for singing spirituals, and refused to write anything approaching jazz. He studied with Varėse for awhile, but soon went back to a very conservative form of composition.

Politically, the Little Rock-born composer was very far to the right, even embracing McCarthyism. He was also—ideologically, not personally—anti-Gay, anti-Jewish and fervently anti-experimentation in music.

The reasons are unique. He actually collaborated with Langston Hughes, who was openly gay. His own wife was Jewish. But—like Wagner, who turned against the Jews because the Parisian Jewish Opera Establishment did not pay him due reverence—Mr. Still fought against the New York Musical Establishment. They were predominantly Jewish/ and/or Gay, and/or Leftist. Or, in the case of Copland and Bernstein, all three!!

The music was a different matter. His most famous work, the “African-American Symphony” was not conducted by Mr. Botstein. Instead, he took other ethnic-titled works, which could be considered on the good side, languorous. On the bad side, tedious.

Mr. Still didn’t allow his works to sing for themselves. The first, Darker America, supposedly influenced by Varėse, had descriptions by the composer. One theme stood for “Hope”, another for “sorrow”, another “the American Negro.” It smacked a little of background music to a 1930’s movie about magnolias and pickaninnies in De Ol ’South, the Varėse fingerprints mainly in an errant trumpet, in a few harmonies which didn’t resolve themselves, and in some minor changes of rhythm.

Following this was another pictorial work with naïve titles for all three movements: Africa was “The Land of Peace”, “The Land of Romance” and “The Land of Superstition”.

Movement one started with tom-toms Native American style, and a nice flute solo that summoned up Indonesia more than Africa. But none of this music really carried. Parts called for a crooning Crosby sound (“The Road to Zanzibar”?), but like Darker America, one could sense the African-American phrasings (the kind which Gershwin used in Porgy and Bess), and otherwise was undistinguished.

Mr. Still’s final contribution was a symphony Leopold Stokowski premiered, called Song of a New Race. This was Mr. Still’s mature style, devoid of ethnicity, souçpons of avant-garde. The strings were as silky as any Broadway overture, the brass climaxes for each movement were as obvious as the melodies. The general impression was of a Robert Russell Bennett-style composer who, had he forgotten his pretensions, could have orchestrated for any pop singer of the 1940’s or 1950’s

A whole afternoon of Still would have been deadening, though Mr. Botstein evidently enjoyed the music. So he began with “George Chadwick”, a late 19th Century composer who felt that an American title (“Rip Van Winkle), and a Central-European style was obviously “real American music.”

The one substantial piece was Offrandes, two surrealistic poems set to a gleaming orchestral palette and sung with poise and precision by the mezzo Jennifer Rivera. It says something about the trio of composers yesterday afternoon, that two of them were easy, listenable, with pretty tunes and rich texture. Varėse’s music was without “song”, the texture was spasmodic, startling, almost irrational—yet this was the music which is lifted from the score, and dwells in a far more universal cosmos.

Harry Rolnick



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