Friday, April 4, 2014

Dominique-René de Lerma: 'Exploring Music' No. 4 centered on two cherished landmarks: Dett's 'In the bottoms' and Still's 'Afro-American symphony.'


The Collected Piano Works of R. Nathaniel Dett

Summy-Birchard (1973)

[R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) is profiled at, which features a comprehensive Works List and a Bibliography by Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma,]

Dominique-René de Lerma writes:

The fourth broadcast in the series, Exploring music, centered on two cherished landmarks: Dett's In the bottoms and Still's Afro-American symphony.  If there were any fans of Bill McGaughlin to whom either work was new, there had to be converts.  For the rest of us, these works were beloved old friends, and both are readily available on CD, in various performances.
            For Still's first symphony it was Detroit, conducted by Neeme Järvi.  When this Estonia-born conductor included Still, but especially Ellington in his Motown repertoire, he was criticized.  No, he responded, he was conducting an American orchestra playing American music.  All available recordings of this masterwork have merit, perhaps none so vital as this 1993 release (on Chandos CHAN 9154), but the banjo in the third movement could be more prominent.  I do have a complaint about all recordings -- even the London LP with the work's only Black conductor, Paul Freeman -- and this is about all clarinetists in the first movement.  The initial theme, like the second, is orthodox, straight-ahead, classic12-bar. no-joke blues, pure and simple.  On the penultimate note of each phrase, Still has placed a tenuto marking.  Clarinetists have a tendency to be among the most athletic of the woodwinds, yet their antics, which seem so soulfully and publicly expressive visually, have little effect on the phrase's dynamic contours.  Here is the time for the soloist to shrug the shoulder, to put a little emphasis on the off-beat note.  But what happens? The phrase ends with Mozartian elegance, far from funk.  And as always, I would welcome the clarinetists into the woodwind family who are not aghast at the mention of vibrato, as if it were a gross obscenity.
            As for the "I got rhythm" break earlier in the scherzo's Hallelujahs, this is a controversial point.  Did Gershwin steal from Still?  When Bill called our notice however, Still  was quoted incorrectly at the piano; the music is the same in both instances.
            No one could reveal the subtle slyness of Dett's suite better than Natalie Hinderas (née Henderson before Olga Samaroff-Stokowski [née Lucy Hickenlooper] suggested a more exotic stage name).  Our own beloved Natalie was a remarkable person and artist.  It was wonderfully notable -- even humorous --  how this little lady could make the piano roar thunderously, as she does in proper locations of the Juba dance, contrasting so clearly from more delicate moments.  She also does her musical best to bring validity to the suite's weaker opening movement, and there is a sly quirk when her performance brings a personalized commentary on passages with a wink to the sentient, which others fail to notice.  Her performance comes from the 1992 reissue on CRI CD 629.  Had my liner notes been read more carefully, one would note that Dett received an award from Harvard, but not a degree, as was stated.
            Any Black youngster in the past who knew the Juba dance that ends this suite certainly had hopes of being able to perform it.  What a shock it was when I discovered the music from 1913 joined too many other works by being out of print! My plea to Summy Birchard resulted with a reprinting in 1973, not only of this, but all of Dett's suites.  Virginia Flagg McBrier and I wrote the prefatory notes (and I made the serious error of placing Dett's birth in Quebec, not Ontario!).
            I missed the third program in this welcome series of ten NPR broadcasts.  Alas, it was preempted for yet another hearing of Smetana's Die Moldau, like we needed it.  The very same work was performed the next morning on another NPR affiliate.  I really suspect a safe-play list must be distributed to the naive broadcaster, recommending music that will not offend the casual listener, one whose uses masterworks for wall paper or as incidentals in waiting rooms.  Ever since the 1950 Bach anniversary, DJs have thought "Baroque" was a listener magnet, with the strongest attraction coming from Vivaldi -- never noticing that there are few exceptions to his works that consist of little more than embarrassingly primitive ritornellos and interminable predicable sequences.
            That's not the case with McGlaughlin's Black, brown, and beige.  Ever affable Bill, he has no need to refer to a safe list and has never been afraid of airing music never contemplated by program directors.  He also does not neglect to invite reactions and suggestions from his international audience.  Those who are new and those who are veterans of his delights are invited to communicate with him at  He has assured me that he reads every response.  Write on!

Dominique-René de Lerma

Comment by email:
Dear Dom,  Thank you once again for instructing, informing and setting the record straight.  Musically yours, Barbara  Barbara Wright-Pryor

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