Saturday, January 2, 2021

Minnesota Orchestra: New Year's Eve Concert: "Scottish Dance, Waltz and Galop," from Six Dances for String Orchestra by Ulysses Kay

Ulysses Kay (1917-1995)

Program Notes

December 31, 2020

8:00 PM

Ulysses Kay, whose centennial passed three years ago, was among the first major African American classical composers to follow in the footsteps of trailblazers from the preceding generation such as William Grant Still and Florence Price. (Still, in fact, helped prod the young Kay in the mid-1930s to redirect his academic studies from liberal arts to music.)

Like many Western classical composers who came of age in the 20th century, Kay had available to him a dizzying array of traditional and modern compositional styles and techniques. While studying with Paul Hindemith in the early 1940s, Kay found his primary voice in the Neoclassical style—the revival of 18th-century European musical practices such as light textures, simplicity of style, harmonies rooted in traditional Western tonality (though with expanded use of dissonance), and the favoring of traditional non-programmatic forms such as dance suites and sonatas.

By the time of Kay’s passing in 1995, his output included five operas, the last of which was about Frederick Douglass, as well as more than 20 large orchestral works and numerous choral, chamber and film compositions. Also vital to his life story were service in the U.S. Navy as a musician during World War II, 15 years as an advisor and consultant for the performing right organization Broadcast Media, Inc., and two decades as a distinguished music professor at the City University of New York. 

“…into the swing of things”

Tonight we hear the first, second and sixth movements of Kay’s Six Dances for String Orchestra, which date in finished form from 1954—although at least two movements were composed in 1953, when a friend of Kay’s who was a CBS radio producer suggested he write a new work for its Sunday afternoon String Serenade program. Kay, who viewed this as an opportunity to get back “into the swing of things” in the U.S. after three years abroad, wrote the six dances in batches of two, although apparently only four of the six were ultimately performed and broadcast by the CBS radio orchestra. 

Program note by Carl Schroeder.

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