Still: Symphonies 2 & 3, Wood Notes / Jeter, Fort Smith Symphony

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Committed recordings of works by a “golden age” American finally coming into his own on disc.


STILL Symphony No. 2, “Song of a New Race.” Symphony No. 3, “Sunday Symphony.” Wood Notes John Jeter, cond; Fort Smith S NAXOS 8.559676 (61:39)

With this disc, Naxos and the present performers conclude their three-CD series of William Grant Still’s symphonies, plus other orchestral works. I reviewed the second volume (Symphonies 4 and 5, and the Poem for Orchestra— Naxos 8.559603) for another publication, and was quite beguiled. I feel the same way this time around. This music is impossible not to like, and conductor John Jeter and his orchestra from Arkansas, the state in which the young composer spent part of his childhood, are effective advocates.

Wood Notes , a work from 1947 that is receiving its first recording here, is a suite of four movements: “Singing River,” “Autumn Night,” “Moon Dusk,” and “Whippoorwill’s Shoes.” The titles suggest that the music will be picturesque, and, in the best sense of the word, simple, and indeed it is. If there is such a thing as an American Pastoral school of composers, Still would be its dean. The Currier and Ives prints that have adorned the booklet covers in this series have been very appropriate, as they project an innocence that is also one of the strongest characteristics of Still’s music. Imagine Delius at his least Impressionistic, Dvo?ák at his least academic, and Jerome Kern at his most classical, and that might give you an idea of what Still’s music sounds like. (Nevertheless, Varèse was one of his teachers!)

The Second Symphony, premiered with great success by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1937, is “a vision of an integrated society.” In terms of form, this is a bit more ambitious than Wood Notes , but Still’s writing is so unpretentious, tuneful, and relaxed that one can’t help asking what makes this work more symphonic than the other. The mood is sometimes wistful and often hopeful, and Still, when he is not embracing the listener outright, is at least holding his hand, or throwing his arm around his shoulder. Not surprisingly, African-American elements, both traditional and more popular (jazzy), are prominent in this work.

The “Sunday Symphony” dates from 1958. Again, naming its movements will give the reader an idea of what the music sounds like: “Awakening,” “Prayer,” “Relaxation,” and “Day’s End and a New Beginning.” Only 18 minutes long, this symphony is as suitelike as its predecessor, every bit as ingratiating, and even more uncomplicated. Appropriately, “Prayer” is the longest movement, and it builds to a soulful climax. “Awakening” and “Relaxation” both chatter away companionably, and the last movement brings the symphony to its resolute and affirmative conclusion.

I don’t get the feeling that this music makes exorbitant demands on an orchestra. The Fort Smith Symphony, a lean-sounding ensemble in the manner of Howard Hanson’s Eastman-Rochester group, puts Still’s music across capably and with sympathy. (I would have liked to have heard Stokowski and the Philadelphians play the Second Symphony, though!)

It is tempting to call this music naive, but I think to do so would say more about our lack of innocence as listeners, than about any lack of sophistication on the part of William Grant Still.

FANFARE: Raymond Tuttle


For much of his life William Grant Still was invariably referred an army going into battle with a lovely central section describing t to as the “Dean of African-American Composers”. Though his music partakes of many African-American elements, it also demonstrates his varied training under Chadwick and Varese and the many years he spent writing music for jazz bands, radio, music and television. Today Still can be seen simply as one of that number of American nationalist composers who came to maturity between the wars.

In the late 1920s Still began a musical trilogy that would portray the African-American experience in the U.S.: Africa, a tone poem describing the original homeland; the Symphony No. 1 ( African-American) describing the years leading to the Emancipation Proclamation; and the Symphony No. 2 ( Song of a New Race) describing a future where African-Americans would take equal part in the destiny of their country.

The Symphony No. 2 is a major work, blending jazz, blues and gospel elements with a nationalist feeling akin to that of the Eastman School. All of the movements are relatively slow (cf. Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 3). The slow movement proper is the most beautiful and expressive, while the “moderately slow” finale shows Still’s great technical skill as he joins thematic elements of all four movements into an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

Wood Notes is a suite evocative of nature in the American South. Each of the four pieces begins with simple, almost trivial material, which Still then transforms into something far more poignant than one would have expected.

While numbered as the third, The Sunday Symphony was the last of Still’s five symphonies to be written. It describes the typical Sunday of a churchgoer (Still was quite devout) and while not as profound as the Symphony No. 2 it is equally sincere and more compact in expression. The opening movement is full of energy, somewhat reminiscent of Gershwin, but with modal elements and scoring reminiscent of the Big Bands. In the Prayer movement Still develops the main melody for English horn to a poetic coda in his best style. Relaxation is very simple, while the last movement alternates resolution worthy of wilight and the thoughts of the worshipper as he prepares for th e coming day.
The key to performing Still’s music is to concentrate on his obvious sincerity and technical ability, while not letting his tendency towards sentimentality to overwhelm all else. John Jeter realizes this and wisely brings out the positive elements, demonstrating complete control of his players (especially regarding rhythm) and deriving enthusiastic performances. The Fort Smith (Arkansas) Symphony has some troubles with ensemble, but the overall sound is lush, as much of the music requires. This disc completes the Naxos series of the Still symphonies. While there are other impressive recordings of the first two symphonies, Jeter faces no real competition with the last three, and the entire set can be recommended to all fans of American music.
-- William Kreindler , MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: December 13, 2011

  • Catalog Number: 8559676

  • UPC: 636943967621

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: 20th Century

  • Composer: William Grant Still

  • Conductor: John Jeter

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Fort Smith Symphony