Tuesday, June 7, 2022

SFCV.org: LA Phil closes its season "...with the swinging flourish of Black composer William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1 (“Afro-American”)"

William Grant Still (1895-1978)

Josef Woodard

June 6, 2022

The finale of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2021–2022 subscription concert season, Sunday afternoon at Walt Disney Concert Hall, might have been considered an anomaly by the standards of another orchestra. As part of the LA Phil’s multi-genre Power to the People! festival, the concert included deep roots in Latin American culture (unveiling Puerto Rico-born composer Angélica Negrón’s Moriviví and reprising Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs, which set love poems by the great Chilean poet, here powerfully sung by mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges) and closed with the swinging flourish of Black composer William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1 (“Afro-American”).


It has been an unusually good year for the legacy of seminal Black American composer William Grant Still (1895–197[8]), as the classical music firmament seeks to address the general societal/cultural move towards greater racial inclusivity. The first version of his “Afro-American” Symphony (circa 1930, revised in 1969) was performed by the LA Phil in 1940, conductor David Broekman presiding. Cut to the final slot of the 2021–2022 season, and Dudamel and the orchestra brought out its finery and made an admirable attempt at injecting genuine swing patois into this hybrid of classical Euro-American and jazz-blues characters.

At this point, Still’s score can play like a time-stamped slice of musical history rather than a vibrant piece of musical argument. But the symphony remains an important adjunct to the established body of jazz-infused orchestral writing, beyond the domain of better-known and more widely performed models by white composers like George Gershwin and Darius Milhaud. Still winks in the direction of Gershwin in his symphony’s “Humor” movement, folding in a melody resembling the hook of Ger  shwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” Yes, Still did have that, and from a direct cultural source.

His First Symphony duly provided an alternative brand of all-American finale, to this concert and to a fine, probing orchestral season.

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