Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Maestro John Jeter Reflects on World's First Recorded Series of William Grant Still Symphonies, on Naxos

[TOP: William Grant Still (Photo is the sole property of William Grant Still Music, and is used with permission BOTTOM: William Grant Still Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3, 'Wood Notes' on Naxos 8.559676]

William Grant Still (1895-1978) is profiled at, which features a comprehensive Works List by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma, The composer's recordings, sheet music and books are available from William Grant Still Music, operated by his daughter Judith Anne Still, at

On the eve of the public release of the new recording on Dec. 13, 2011, Maestro John Jeter of the Fort Smith Symphony kindly made himself available for an interview with on December 5, 2011:

Hello, this is Bill Zick.
How are you doing?
I've really been enjoying the recording! I want to thank you for giving us the opportunity to talk to you about this historic recording that completes the first series of Still Symphonies!
Yes, it's kind of amazing it has taken us up until now, isn't it?
I believe you started in 2005 with the first one?
Yes. When we started, we had planned to just do that one.
And then with the funding opportunities, and after the disc sold pretty well, we thought “Well, let's keep going!” And it's amazing it has taken this many years! But a lot of that also had to do with our schedule. Trying to schedule a recording date when you have musicians so busy is just hard to make it work!
It's understandable it took about six years from start to finish, given the scope of the project.
There have been other recordings of the First Symphony, but only one each, I believe, of the Second and Third?
The First Symphony has had three commercial recordings. There is the Detroit Symphony on Chandos; there is the one with The Royal Philharmonic conducted by Karl Krueger...
That would be the Bridge recording, I believe?
Yes. And then there is a Dayton Philharmonic recording.
But for the other symphonies, isn't there only one recording each?
Yes, of Symphonies 2 and 3, that's correct. And then of course, 4 and 5 were never recorded commercially. In Memoriam, Africa and Poem for Orchestra were all premieres.
I wanted to ask you about the “Naxos Sessions”?
“The Naxos Sessions” was actually the title of a subscription concert we did last April. We rehearsed, and then performed, all of the music on the CD. We did that on the subscription concert, and we had Judith Anne Still here to say a few things from the stage, and she gave a really nice presentation on the day before at a local facility in Fort Smith.
I think it was early afternoon on a Friday?
Yes. And she did her lecture; she has a slide presentation she does about her father, and talked about his history, and she also included in that general comments about the difficulties of African American musicians during the first half of the Twentieth Century in terms of credibility and getting opportunities. But it is all really ultimately a focus on her father's music. It was very well received. She also did a shortened version of that, and she said a few things from the stage. The audience really enjoyed the concert. That was a Saturday performance. Then Sunday and Monday we recorded it. There was a total of four sessions. Everything went really smoothly. Tim Handley is a terrific Recording Engineer! I thought the results turned out really nice! I'm happy with the way the CD turned out. The orchestra just got their copies Saturday. We had a holiday concert. I haven't really talked to anyone since then, but I am sure they are really enjoying it. I think the CD will be released on on December 13, and there may be an international release date in January. is taking pre-orders.
You clustered the four days, one of rehearsal, one of performance and two of recording. I was wondering if that was related to the fact that many of your musicians come from throughout the region?
Yes, that's true! We had about a hundred musicians for the concert and the recording. About 15 of those people live locally. So the other 85 are coming from all over the place, as far away as New York State and Florida.
You must have filled up the local hotels?
Yes! Lots of big mileage bills and big hotel bills, that's right! It was great to do. It was nice to record with them; I think Wood Notes gets performed somewhat regularly. In terms of Still's music, I think it is one of the more frequently performed pieces. I was actually surprised that there has been no commercial recording of that! In fact, that was a suggestion of mine to do on the first CD. But we decided to just do the other pieces, because we thought they would fit a little bit better. We knew that ultimately we would include Wood Notes on one of the CDs.
I'm certainly glad that you did get to it. I notice that it was premiered by a major orchestra, the Chicago Symphony...
With Rodzinski the conductor, and from what I've read, the reviews were quite favorable?
Yes! The first few Still pieces that I conducted, as a guest conductor, were already programmed. One of the things that interested me in this whole thing from the beginning is that after these concerts were over - some were subscription concerts and others were part classical, part pops - what struck me is that every time I would conduct a Still piece, people would always come up to me afterwards specifically to say how much they liked Still, and say “I never heard the piece before, but I really like that!” I thought that was really interesting!
So you saw a real pattern there?
Yes, yes! That's what kind of got me interested in more of his music. “Wow!” It really seemed to speak to people! It may have that familiar Americana language, but people had not heard it before. Combine that with the fact that people who are involved in music or Music History know who he is, but they usually have just heard his First Symphony, or maybe some songs.
It's pretty interesting, and it's been really fun to work with the music. It's all first quality. He's definitely someone who unfortunately suffered from the prejudice of the day. It's really hard to compare composers. In a way it's not fair. However, I am much more convinced of the quality of his music versus some of the other contemporary composers who were bigger names. Just as an example, there is a whole New England school of composers,
I have nothing against those folks...
George Chadwick and Edgar Varese and so on?
Well no, I'm thinking about composers like Roy Harris and Walter Piston.
Oh, I see!
You know, there was a period of time in the 50s and 60s where a lot of their orchestral pieces were being done. It's fine, you know, the music is fine. But when I think about those pieces, and the champions of those pieces, and then you think of Still's music just kind of sitting on the sidelines, when I think it's more engaging for audiences, it's disappointing! Again, I'm not trying to take anything away from those other composers.
I understand.
Yes, but you know, that's the way history is. Hopefully, with these recordings there will be greater interest. I think there may be! Judith Anne was saying she is getting more inquiries about some of these pieces. She said she was getting more people asking about performing Symphonies 4 and 5, as a result of the previous CD.
That was two years ago, and now you are seeing some of the results of it?
Well yes, it's been a real fun project! We are officially finished with that project, and before you even ask me, yes, we have ideas, but I can't say anything yet!
There's one other kind of large William Grant Still project that we would like to do, and it's simply a question of financing it. But that's all I can tell you right now.
I understand you can't let the cat out of the bag too soon!
Right! We also have the interest of another label that's interested in doing some recordings with us, based on the success of these first two CDs. I don't think those are going to be Still music; I think they will be Americana related. We're going to see what develops there too. It's been a good project for us also..
So you're developing a reputation for Americana?
Yes, but it's nice that people can hear the recordings all over the world and say “Hey, you know, this is a fine orchestra, I've never heard of Fort Smith.” People don't think about the State of Arkansas when they think about orchestral music...
So it's nice to have that. Because really, even though he was born in Mississippi, he is Arkansas' adopted state composer, really!
That's another reason we got a bump in the project to begin with. There is an Arkansas Heritage element to it too! So it's been really good, Naxos has been terrific, they couldn't be nicer or easier to work with! I have only great things to say about the whole company; they have just been fantastic!
Well, I don't think there's any larger scale company you could deal with, or one with more distribution!
Right! I believe they are the largest classical label in the world! And yes, their distribution is second to none! The whole intention of this project is that we record something, and get it out to as many people as possible! And that's what Naxos does. The pricing of the discs, the mid-price CDs, was also very attractive to us because you are going to have more people just taking a chance and saying “Well, I think I'll buy that! It's affordable, even though I've never heard of these pieces or this orchestra, it looks intriguing; I'll give it a try.” I don't know the numbers, but I understand that the first two CDs sold very well! That's great for the label and it's great for William Grant Still and his music.
Yes, there is credibility all the way around!
Yes, exactly! I'm glad you had a chance hear it.
Oh yes, I really feel as though my repertoire has expanded! Especially with Wood Notes, which of course I had never heard before.
I feel this is going to be a new staple for me and for other people who appreciate Still and the Americana kind of music.
The nice thing about it from a programming standpoint is the music works on a subscription classics program; you could also include the music possibly on a pops program. He's a great alternative to “Gershwin, Copland, Gershwin, Copland.”
Or, on a program where you are doing Americana, you could put a piece of his in there. There are so many different styles. Like the Third Symphony, it works great on a classics program; I think it could work on a pops program also. It's not terribly long...
The Second Symphony of course would work great on a classics program. Wood Notes – you could put that anywhere!
I think there is a lot of versatility here! And yes, his music's great! It's very straightforward. The orchestration is great! Everything is always naturally balanced; you never have to have any balance issues whatsoever. He's a very good orchestrator, terrific melody! I think another interesting thing is, there is a lot of cohesion in the music, even though there are a lot of different emotional components. Sometimes he can have, particularly in the outer movements, a lot of different types of character. Oftentimes very contrasting moments of music, but it all works really well. I guess it's episodic, but it doesn't feel that way! With a lot of composers, if it's episodic it feels that way. These pieces seem to flow really well!
I don't think you would know, without reading the dates, that these pieces were composed about a decade apart from each other?
Ten years between the first and second item, and then eleven years for the other item, the Third Symphony I believe, '58.
Right! The only time you really notice a stylistic difference is in the Fifth Symphony, which has a modern sound to it. That, you sort of feel like he is going into a little different direction. But yes, there is a lot of variety. If you think about the most recent CD, the Second Symphony is definitely a serious work. He definitely makes you feel the kind of combination of Americana with a kind of Austro-German tradition. Wood Notes is very impressionistic. The Second Movement is definitely like total Ravel-Debussy! And then the Third Symphony is again almost like a holiday piece, something you would hear at the park!
You might hear it at a pops program.
Your comment about the modern character is similar to an observation made by my principal advisor, Prof. De Lerma...
That Still was ahead of his time in some ways?
Yes, he studied with Varese, he had that influence. I think he always really wanted to have his music performed, as some composers do. I think he had that in mind, that he wanted to make sure the music was accessible. Now we talk about accessibility all the time, but back then it wasn't really discussed. It was sort of a foregone conclusion! But if you think about what was going on at the time, I think his innovation was keeping it traditional and attractive but including the jazz element, in a way that is serious and symphonic. Gershwin included a lot of jazz elements, and it sounded like jazz. Still hints at it a lot more.
It's subtle?
He certainly succeeded with the popular and American character when he did his piece for the New York World's Fair.
That was probably played more times than any other composer's work in that era, because of playing it nonstop at the World's Fair.
A vast number of peoiple experienced it.
Yes! And you know very popular and again, as we all know in reading the biography, he got to where he was doing very well, and I think people just thought, you know, “This guy is a little too popular!” We have to remember the race here. Of course this was back in the day, right?
And when you get to really the premiere, that fiasco of Troubled Island, according to Judy Still is really what kind of put him over the edge! That was just an organized disaster! The performances were really terrific, by all accounts. It was at that point that he had become successful in the symphonic world, but “Man, to have an African American composer successful in the operatic world? Forget it! We just can't have it!” But, this project has been pretty rewarding – the orchestra has really enjoyed doing it! We are looking forward to have this CD released, and we hope it sells really well. I think it will! I think there have been enough sales of the first two that I think there are a lot of people who are waiting for it. We're happy that Naxos was willing to do it! As you know, they record and release a lot of CDs!
Oh yes!
That American Classics Series has done really well for them! And good for them for doing it! There is so much music in that series!
They deserve a lot of credit for bringing music to the market that wouldn't reach it otherwise!
Yes! You know, the whole thing, as I understand it, was started kind of as a hobby. And I think the whole point of Naxos has been – I mean they obviously need to make a profit – but it has been more mission-driven than anything else! It's a large, international organization, but it still has kind of the feel of a smaller operation. I know I can communicate pretty easily with quite a few people who work there; it's just really easy! That said, in a way, it's the new tradition, if you think about it!
There are still a lot of recordings being made, but so many large orchestras now have their own labels.
Which seems to be working out okay. We're just thrilled that we are able to have a label outside of our own which was interested in recording with us! Not that we have our own label!
Not just any label either, but the big kahuna!
Yes! And it's been great working with Judith! She's been great! I would encourage anyone interested in doing any of Still's music, no matter where you get it or where you buy it or rent it, she's a great resource! Her presentation is such that everyone loves it! It has the official one with the slides, and it goes way back to Still's distant relatives. It's very good and it's really entertaining too! People were interested, they were laughing, they were shocked! They felt they learned a lot! It was the same presentation Friday and Saturday, and some people came to both!
Is that right!
They just wanted to hear it again, after the first day!
That certainly speaks for it!
Well John I think we have pretty much covered this project. Can you think of anything you would like to add?
Enjoy the CD a lot! It's going to be available as a download. I just think all three pieces are terrific! It's a real fun CD! There are some serious moments in it. I hope people will sit back and have a listen, and listen to what, for most people, is music they have never heard before! I hope people will get a lot out of it, as much as we were able to get out of performing it, because we sure enjoyed doing it!
In addition to reviewing it, I have the recording in my own personal collection and on my iPod, for listening for pleasure.
That's the thing about it – that's a good point! In terms of things we have recorded, with the possible exception of the Fifth Symphony, I think you could do that with any of the pieces. They work really well! You can listen to them on a lot of levels! You can have them on at home, maybe while you are doing other things, or you can sit and intently listen to the works. They are very versatile in terms of what you can get out of them as a listener!
Right! Well, I want to thank you very much, John!
Sure, thanks for all the communications over the years, and we will certainly keep you posted! For this next thing, if someone wrote us a check tomorrow, it would probably take a good 18 months to two years, just to get it scheduled.
We'll know there is something in the pipeline!
Well, take it easy!
Bye now!
[Disclosure: A review copy of this CD was provided by the record label.]

Comments by email:
Great interview, Bill! John has the history in his pocket, and so do you. Very fine. The Jeter CDs ARE doing wonderfully, and we are very happy about that. It is outstanding to have this project done in my father's home state. [Judith Anne Still]

Thanks so much Bill. We will keep you posted as things develop! John [John Jeter]

What a great interview! I love the part about has "familiar Americana language." And he's so right about orchestration -- you never have to go through all the balance issues that you do on most pieces. It's rather amazing. [Celeste Headlee]

No comments: