Still: Summerland; Violin Suite; Pastorela; American Suite / Schiff, Eisenberg, Royal Scottish National Orchestra
World Premiere Recordings!
William Grant Still, the “Dean of Afro-American Composers,” was part of the Harlem Renaissance and wrote nearly 200 works including nine operas and five symphonies. Still’s many awards included three Guggenheim Fellowships and eight honorary doctorates. His work combines Classical forms with jazz and blues idioms and was inspired by the rich tradition of African American spirituals. Still hoped that his music would serve a larger purpose of interracial understanding, and this joyous, moving and hauntingly beautiful program –featuring all world premiere recordings – is infused with Still’s love of God, country, heritage, and even his mischievous dog Shep.
All the items on this program are world premiere recordings, so I think it would not be amiss if some information were to be forwarded for the benefit of all those interested in this very special music.
Can’t You Line ‘Em (1940) captures the rhythm and spirit of the construction gangs, particularly those lining up railroad tracks. A CBS commission, this piece was premiered on 17 February 1940 with the CBS Radio Orchestra on their network program American School of the Air.
Originally composed as the second movement of three Visions for solo piano, Summerland (1936) is Still’s delicate description of the serenity and purity of Heaven.
Another work originally written for solo piano, Quit Dat Foolnish (1935) conjures up a jazzy romp with the composer’s mischievous dog, Shep. Still also wrote a version for solo saxophone and orchestra, transposed for this recording by Dana Paul Perna.
Pastorela (1946) is a tone picture of a Californian landscape, peaceful but exciting, arousing feelings of languor in some of its aspects, and of animation in others, presenting an overall effect of unity in its variety.
American Suite (circa 1918) is the composer’s first symphonic work. Still sent the parts of the American Suite to Chicago Symphony conductor Frederick Stock. In 1998, Still’s daughter Judith Anne shared the orchestral parts with Dana Paul Perna, who created the present score.
Fanfare for the 99th Fighter Squadron (1945), which resonates with pride, courage, and patriotic resolve, was composed in honor of the Tuskegee airmen who during WWII gave everything for the cause of peace and justice. This work was premiered by Leopold Stokowski and the Los Angeles Philharmonic on 22 July 1945 in commemoration of the end of war and the valiant service of those Airmen.
Serenade (1957) was originally intended as material for a cello concerto proposed by Still’s friend, the famous cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. Instead, it became a commission by the Great Falls, Montana High School Orchestra, with its lush cello writing hinting at its conception.
The Violin Suite (1943) is a musical impression of three works of art. African Dancer is a stunning bronze statue by Richmond Barthe (1901-1989). Mother and Child is a poignant colored lithograph by Sargent Johnson (1888-1967). Gamin is a sassy bronze bust by Auguste Savage (1892-1962). These works were featured in The Negro in Art, a book published in 1940 by Still’s friend and champion Alain Locke (1885-1954). The book so impressed Edith Halpert (1900-1970), a Russian-Jewish refugee, visionary and art promoter, that she contacted Locke to promote an exhibition in her Downtown Gallery in New York. The exhibition opened on 8 December 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, but despite the deep sadness that engulfed American society, this first major commercial showing of African American art in New York was a great success. Still rose to the occasion and translated the artists’ imagination into music full of verve, tenderness and very often charm.
The beautiful Threnody: In Memory of Jean Sibelius (1965) was commissioned for a concert in memory of Finland’s national hero, composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), on the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. Still’s tribute is a noble and haunting farewell, channelling the spirit and mystique of Sibelius the man and the composer.
This is a marvelously exciting hour of music by a composer of substance whose recorded catalog is still only average. Hopefully, Naxos’ advocacy for Still’s oeuvre will induce more labels and listeners to turn to this uplifting repertoire which is as moving as it is entertaining. Do not remain still to Still’s sound world. You will be missing an experience and you might come to regret that. A peach of an issue, superbly performed, recorded and annotated.
--Classical Music Daily (Gerald Fenech)
Release Date: May 27, 2022
Catalog Number: 8559867
Number of Discs: 1
Period: 20th Century
Composer: William Grant Still
Conductor: Avlana Eisenberg
Orchestra/Ensemble: Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Performer: Zina Schiff