Thursday, May 13, 2021 Sculptures "inspired composer William Grant Still to write his Suite for Violin and Piano"

Victor Romanul
(Courtesy Victor Romanul)

William Grant Still (1895-1978)
By Carl Van Vechten.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Romanul the Romantic: Profile of a BSO violinist

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BOSTON — Picture a music stand holding three items: sheet music, a metronome, and a photograph. The sheet music tells the performer what to play, the metronome how quickly. And the photograph keeps the performer in sync with the composer’s emotional state. That may sound a bit newfangled, even new-agey, but this is the kind of thing people were doing when the Romantic era was in full flower around the middle of the 19th century. Music was expected to be about more than itself. And when did that era end? It depends on whom you ask. 

But if you ask Boston Symphony Orchestra violinist Victor Romanul, he’ll tell you a story about preparing for a performance with the aid of sheet music and sculpture — that is, photographs of the sculptures that inspired composer William Grant Still to write his Suite for Violin and Piano, which Romanul performs with pianist Randall Hodgkinson in Episode 2 of the BSO’s streaming concert series “Pathways of Romanticism.” (Also, his amazing performance of the suite’s second movement, “Mother and Child,” is included in the Boston Pops’ streaming Mother’s Day show.)

Victor Romanul has been performing professionally since the age of seven. At 11, he made his Symphony Hall debut performing Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, and he is still in awe of the place, because he loves the history of the Boston Symphony. And he lives for opportunities to give performances of pieces like Still’s suite.

William Grant Still was an African American composer of over 200 works of classical music in the European tradition, an Oberlin student who kept one foot in the commercial music worlds of Broadway and Hollywood, even as he composed and conducted orchestral and operatic works for the concert hall. Throughout his career, he faced much the same skepticism from classical music’s old guard as Leonard Bernstein would face years later, with the Brahmin wunderkind attempting to foist memorable tunes on an audience often unreceptive to melody in contemporary music. 

This was not only because, like Bernstein, Grant Still was unable to keep himself from writing a good tune, but also because he was Black. (One venue allowed the composer to attend performances of his music only on “Negro Day.”) Despite this, the young composer made a name for himself as a purveyor of music that audiences enjoyed listening to, and this was fine for radio, film, theater, and the dance hall. But the classical music concert hall was a different matter. 

Nevertheless, at a time when conservatories were already championing the who-cares-if-you-listen ethos that would reach its zenith in the 1950s, Arthur Fiedler programmed, and the Boston Pops Orchestra performed, William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1 in A-flat major, “Afro-American.” He enjoyed much popularity with concert audiences and became one of the most frequently performed composers — Black or otherwise — in his lifetime. William Grant Still may have been a Black Leonard Bernstein. But there is no white William Grant Still.

Outside the classical world, Grant Still arranged music for innumerable popular artists, including the father of stride piano, James P. Johnson

Grant Still wrote music that sounded good and also satisfied the conservatory crowd. 

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