Monday, March 23, 2009 William Grant Still's 'Second Symphony is a lush, romantic piece'

[William Grant Still (1895-1978)] ]
Howard Kissell
The Cultural Tourist
March 22, 2009
This afternoon Leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra in several pieces by William Grant Still (1895-1978), whose name is often followed by the phrase 'the Dean of African-American composers.' As is often the case words are a much easier way to honor a man than performing his music -- he appears in concert halls and on disc far less than he should. In his program notes Botstein mentions that one of Still's champions was Leopold Stokowski, who was in fact the founder of the American Symphony and who corresponded with Still about a piece that might be played at its debut in 1963.

In the concert at Avery Fisher Hall Botstein did a wonderful job of 'framing' Still, of putting him in context. The program began with a 'Rip van Winkle Overture' by George Whitefield Chadwick, a 19th century American composer, a pleasant enough composition. He followed it with Still's 'Darker America,' which made Chadwick really sound like 'white bread.' In some ways 'Darker America' was the most interesting piece on the program -- it had an arresting, somber quality, using the brass and winds to particularly mournful effect. Written in 1924, it seemed inescapably an attempt to convey the African-American experience, which it did -- powerfully."

The first half concluded with an evocative three-movement Still work called 'Africa.' It was composed in 1928, when American symphonic music, by white and black composers, was still searching for an American sound. Music from this period often has an impressionistic rather than a formal structure.” “Still followed his own muse. His Second Symphony, which closed the program, is a lush, romantic piece, which the ASO played beautifully.”

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