Wednesday, June 24, 2020

San Francisco Classical Voice: Adolphus Hailstork: Bridging Two Worlds

From February 2019, Adolphus Hailstork (right) with marketing agent Bill Doggett (left) and conductor Stephen Tucker (center)

San Francisco Classical Voice

By Michael Zwiebach June 23, 2020
Adolphus Hailstork (born 1941) is only getting better with age. The premiere of Still Holding On, commissioned and performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in February 2019, was well received, with conductor Thomas Wilkins calling him “the dean of African American composers,” (a reference to William Grant Still, the subject of the piece). The Phil’s Hailstork celebration, hosted by Music UNTOLD founder John Malveaux, concluded with Hailstork receiving a proclamation from the office of the mayor of Los Angeles.
And there’s more new work on the way: the composer has just begun a requiem cantata for George Floyd, A Knee on the Neck, with the score set to be finished, Hailstork estimates, by next April, with parts available in May. That major work, which he discusses in the interview below, is just one of a large number of compositions that reflect his engagement with black history.
Adolphus Hailstork

And yet Hailstork (actually Adolphus Cunningham Hailstork III) has always been aware of what he calls his dual cultural heritage: born in Rochester, NY, and raised in Albany, the son of a chef, he received his primary musical education in the Episcopal Cathedral of All Saints and was introduced to the classical tradition, including of course, his fellow Episcopalian Samuel Barber, and other contemporary Americans. As he says below, he was insulated from the developing civil rights movement in his earlier education. His B.A. in music, from Howard University (1963) and his initial postgraduate study at the Manhattan School (1964–1966, where he was taught by David Diamond, one of the leading lights of the mid-century American symphonists, and Vittorio Giannini, who remained a tonality-based composer in an academic world heavily dominated by serialism and other non-tonal compositional processes) and a nine-week study course with Nadia Boulanger in France, sound idyllic, in a way, shelters from the storm and stress of American culture.
But a reckoning came, as he says, when he got out of the army (he served in West Germany) in 1968. And while the story of that development is fascinating, the richness and breadth of the musical influences make Hailstork’s music exciting. There are the mid-century symphonists and the eventful, forward push of that style, devoid of excessive rhetoric, but also Episcopalian music, spirituals, stories from black history, references to iconic musicians like Still, and more. Hailstork’s eminence and the quality of his music deserve more time on America’s and the world’s concert stages. And since we’re at a moment of reflection and historical inflection, it’s time for cultural institutions to take note. Let’s celebrate this important composer’s 80th birthday, next year, in style.
I reached Hailstork at his home in Virginia, where he teaches at Old Dominion University.
You seem to be getting more prolific as you get older.
Yes, as someone said, part of it is just showing up — I’m still alive so I might as well keep writing.
More commissions?
No, I actually went into a 20-year lull, occasional pieces once in a while, and now it seems like interest is perking up again and we’ll see what happens.
About your influences …
Well, I’m pretty eclectic; I’m multistylistic, all the names you want to use, they all fit.
From February 2019, Adolphus Hailstork (right) with marketing agent Bill Doggett (left) and conductor Stephen Tucker (center)

You survived postmodernism.
I survived the gun-to-the-head modernism, back when I was a student —  you know if you weren’t crunching elbows on the keys and counting up to 12 all the time, you weren’t being much of a composer. I decided I didn’t want to go that way. I came up as a singer and singers don’t often sing in 12-tone technique and things like that. I’ve used it, but it wasn’t a natural fit and so I’ve spent most of my career trying to be honest with myself. I call it “authenticism” — that’s my “ism.”
Let me ask you about your teachers. What did you learn from David Diamond?
David Diamond had just returned from Italy, after a 14-year stint, and he helped me break down my theory rigidities: there was some rigidity in my previous study, where things had to be such-and-such a way or look the way so-and-so did it. And he just said one sentence in one class one day, he said “Who says?” In other words, “you are the authority.” And I really benefitted from that.
The reason I mention that is that, at that time, there was so much of the “you must be modern” stuff going on, that no one ever said, “you must be yourself.” And he loosened that up.
How many African Americans were in your composition classes? Were you the only one?
Oh yeah.
Adolphus Hailstork
So was it harder to find yourself, when you were alone, that way?
Ah, at that time — that’s a very good point, ah, how to say this — the racial identity pressures were not as strong as they have become [in the university]. I just loved the composers I loved, and I never thought about the fact that they were white and I was black. So a lot of my early identification was with the Europeans and the Euro-Americans, and it was only after the rise of the civil rights era, that I started really observing that. Because I did not grow up in the South and with segregation attitudes. And so I just loved Samuel Barber, I loved Aaron Copland, I thought Bernstein was fantastic. It was just not a “well, they’re not black and therefore … ” So I just wrote and I continued to write.
And then I realized that there were two different “constituencies,” you might say, that were being very sharply divided, two different cultures — they always had been but I hadn’t been aware of the Deep South African American culture. And I became more and more aware of it the past 30 years or so, and I’ve tried to integrate African American elements with my Euro training, and sometimes my works are strictly without any racial influence and sometimes very strongly and deliberately focused on using African American elements. And sometimes I blend them and juxtapose them.
Like the contrast between your tone poem Hercules and the symphonic portrait Zora! [after Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston]; they’re completely different.
Yes, that might bother people who want a composer to always sound exactly the same way all the time and that ain’t me.
It’s like coding. You know, there is a unique challenge just to exist in this country sometimes, and if you want to reach a certain audience, you use a certain inflection in your speech and in your writing. Sometimes you go back and forth: like, they used to tease Obama about dropping the ‘g’s when he got around a black audience. [For me] it’s similar to that.

A lot of African American artists pull from both traditions (and more).
I like to tell people that I’m a cultural hybrid and sometimes it’s agonizing. Sometimes I feel like I was hanging by my thumbs between two cultures. And then I just said to myself — after years of this, I said, “Look, I accept myself as a cultural hybrid, and I know I have trained in Euro-classical skills and I also am very interested — and since I went to school in an African American college — I am aware of that culture too. And I use them both.
Can I ask about your early training in the Episcopal Church? Your music seems to have the ring of the hymnal in a lot of places.
Yes, I came up in a high church, an Episcopal cathedral, traditional Anglican style. I was a boy soprano, did the whole nine yards. Altar boy at one time. Thirty years ago, or so, it dawned on me that I was strongly influenced by my experience in the cathedral, and I started piano there, I learned organ there, I learned to read music there. And the cadences, the melodic inflections, etc. [in my music] were very strongly influenced by that, and I noticed that what I call my “ecclesiastical cadences” in my music sometimes — they’re not the usual V-I [dominant-tonic]; I often use the Phrygian cadence [a type of half-cadence with an archaic feel] or the plagal cadence [subdominant-tonic], just something that does catch the sound of cathedral music. And my favorite radio program, that’s still on, is With Heart and Voice; I listen to that every Sunday.
Yeah, in your Shout for Joy (1990) I was expecting, I don’t know why, something more along [black] spiritual lines, but what I heard, especially the opening fanfares and the way the chorus behaves in the middle sections, is just what you’re describing now.
We used to have choral festivals at the cathedral [like the ones that have been traditional in England since the 1700s] where the boys and men’s choirs from Toronto, I think it was, and there was another one in Albany, along with ours. We’d all get together and have these fantastic choral programs that would start off with fanfares with brass and timpani and all of that, and then we’d do these big choral anthems, and that’s exactly why I subtitled that piece “The Banks Street Festival Anthems,” because it was directly influenced by my experience as a kid in the cathedral.

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