Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Baritone Leon Williams on Naxos CD of Music of Delius, With The Florida Orchestra, Released September 25, 2012

Henry Adams of The Florida Orchestra writes: 

(St. Petersburg, FL) – September, 25, 2012  Today, The Florida Orchestra (TFO) releases a recording of music by Frederick Delius, their first on the Naxos label (Catalog No. 8572764). The music includes English composer Frederick Delius’ Sea Drift and Appalachia: Variations on an Old Slave Song both of which feature baritone Leon Williams and The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay conducted by Stefan Sanderling. Both works were recorded live and in concert during last season’s Tampa Bay Times Masterworks program “Celebrate Delius” at the two performances at the Progress Energy Center for the Arts Mahaffey Theater on January 6 and 7, 2012. In his review in today's Tampa Bay Times, Performing Arts Critic John Fleming calls the recording "exquisite" and gives it an overall A grade, nodding to Sanderling's well-paced performances and Leon Williams's "lyrical smoothness and rich sonority." 

TFO Board Chair Thomas Farquhar said, “Securing a recording contract with such a well-respected and established company as Naxos is an honor for all of us, and making this recording is another important artistic initiative for our wonderful orchestra.” Farquhar continued, “Although Frederick Delius was English, the recording of his music has added significance for The Florida Orchestra.   Delius lived in Florida, along the St. John’s River some 35 miles south of Jacksonville in an area called Solano Grove. It was there that he first heard American plantation songs, which both inspired him as a composer and left such a unique musical signature on many of his works.” Orchestra President and CEO Michael Pastreich went on to say, “We hope this recording will help to raise the awareness and enjoyment of Delius’ music, in particularly his major works, which are so rich in musical and emotional nuances.”

Appalachia is Delius's 40-minute “variations on an old slave song with final chorus.”  "When Dvořák returned to Prague in 1895," writes Joseph Horowitz, author of Classical Music in America: A History, "he dropped his American style, but for Delius, the American influence was formative and permanent.  His frequent elegiac tone, his way of oscillating between sorrow and exaltation may be traced back to plantation song, as can be his frequent recourse to the vernacular.  Appalachia is Delius’s New World Symphony, composed less than a decade after Dvořák’s.  The title appropriates a Native American word for the whole of North America."   
"In later life," Horowitz continues, "Delius absorbed a further American influence in the nature mysticism of Walt Whitman –and in 1904 (just after Appalachia) composed Sea Drift, for baritone, chorus, and orchestra. Delius wrote: 'The shape of it was taken out of my hands ... and was bred easily of my particular musical ideas, and the nature and sequence of the particular poetical ideas of Whitman that appealed to me.' The outcome is considered by many as Delius’s masterpiece. Whitman’s poem, from Leaves of Grass, begins with the poet observing mated birds – and the sudden disappearance of the female, no longer daily tending her nest. The he-bird’s bewildered loss transmutes into human loss. The poet imagines the voice of his beloved – 'This gentle call is for you' – only to be disabused by the commenting chorus. The permanence of loss erases cherished memories: 'O darkness! O in vain!' Whitman’s imagery is of love, death, and the sea – and a tidal ebb and flow informs Delius’s setting. Though solo woodwinds evoke birdsong, and a solo harp the glitter of stars, the nature music of Sea Drift is wondrously interior. Its high arc peaks with the ecstasy of apotheosis, then descends to plumb the heartbreak of personal pain.  Identifying with the grieving bird, the human sings: 'Yes, my brother, I know,' a passage ushering distant memories of childhood – and also a distinct memory of a plantation song, wafted from a Florida orange grove long, long ago." 
Frederick Delius, Composer (1862-1934)
Two major European composers were so smitten by American plantation song that their own music was instantly stamped by “Negro melodies.” One – as many Americans know – was Antonín Dvořák, who during his American sojourn of 1892-95 predicted that the songs and dances of African-Americans would spawn “a great and noble school” of American music. The other – a story much less well-known – was Frederick Delius.  Born in England in 1862 to German parents, Delius was sent by his father to Florida to manage an orange grove at the age of 22. He showed no skill in that department. But he did encounter in Thomas Ward, an organist from Brooklyn, a formidable musical mentor. And the songs of the plantation workers that he heard were an epiphany in which he discovered “a truly wonderful sense of musicianship and harmonic resource.” Hearing this singing “in such romantic surroundings,” he later told his disciple Eric Fenby, “I first felt the urge to express myself in music.” A few years later, after Delius had resettled in Danville, Virginia, as a fledgling musician, his father finally agreed to allow him to study composition formally – in Leipzig.  Eventually, Delius went on to compose four works which explicitly evoke the sounds of the American South: the Florida Suite (1887, revised 1889), the operas The Magic Fountain (1895) and Koanga (1897), and the present Appalachia (1896-1903).  Coming last, Appalachia is music on the cusp of Delius’s mature chromatic idiom, which translates the harmonic world of late Wagner into a voice unlike any other, a voice whose central application would be the expression of loss of self in rapturous, solitary communion with Nature.  [Courtesy of Joseph Horowitz, author of Classical Music in America: A History.]
Leon Williams, Baritone
Hailed by The Houston Chronicle as a “splendid soloist” and The Honolulu Star-Bulletin “as powerful as the entire chorus,” American baritone Leon Williams enjoys a fine reputation on several continents for his distinctive voice, charismatic personality and superb musicianship.  His repertoire covers art song, opera, Broadway and spirituals.  A sampling of his performances includes Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Orff’s Carmina Burana , Britten’s War Requiem, Vaughan-Williams’ A Sea Symphony, Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Puccini's La Boheme , and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.  He has performed Fauré’s Requiem with Raymond Leppard and the Kansas City Symphony, Weill’s Lindberghflug with Dennis Russell Davies and the American Composers Orchestra, Mahler’s Rückertlieder with Christoph Eschenbach at Japan’s Sapporo Festival, Mozart’s Requiem with Joseph Flummerfelt at the Westminster Festival and Beethoven’s Mass in C at France’s Colmar Festival, among many other engagements.  The winner of top prizes at the Naumburg, Joy-in-Singing and Lola Wilson Hayes competitions, Williams’ most recent performances with The Florida Orchestra include Mendelssohn’s Elijah on the 2009/2010 season and Haydn’s The Creation on the 2010/2011 season.   He was also the baritone soloist with The Florida Orchestra and The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay in performances of Delius’ Sea Drift and Appalachia on the 2011/12 season, which the Naxos label is releasing on CD and other digital media in September of 2012.

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