ODU Symphony: American Memories
With an orchestra of 57 players—a bit heavy with cellos and a bit light on violins—we heard a fine selection of American music by Chadwick, Barber and Still drawn from the first half of the 20th century.
The program opened with Kelby Schnepel conducting Euterpe Overture (1903) by George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931). Mr. Schnepel is currently in the masters program in music education at ODU and is a music educator and cellist. Boston born Chadwick was part of the musical elite of his time. At age 23 he went to Leipzig and Munich to study and returned to teach harmony and composition at New England Conservatory. The dense music illustrated brief shifting moods, sometimes somber, sometimes loud and tubby. His music is still neglected even though he has recently gained respect for his teaching innovations that led to vital American classical music. The finale was a celebration led by trumpets!
One of the most popular vocal pieces of mid-20th century American music is Samuel Barber's (1910-1981) Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947), a tender setting of prose by James Agee. Agee describes an extended family on quilts in the yard in a neighborhood in Knoxville, Tennessee. The music is built around the sounds of city activities and the quiet talking of the little boy's family. There is a sweet nostalgia in the music as the vocalist Agnes Fuller Wynne sang his words, opening with serene, supple vocal lines, delivered with the lilt of triple rhythms. Instruments characterize the city sounds: night insects, the gentle spray of a garden hose, the hollow iron music of the brash passing of a street car.
Barber's lyricism has remained popular, winning out over the more strident composers of the last half of the 20th century. His instrumental music is often performed as are his songs. He studied at the Curtis Institute where he met soon-to-be opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti. They remained life-long lovers. Barber was an able pianist and a baritone of some talent but an even more accomplished composer. Both the ODU Symphony, led by Dr. Paul Kim, and Ms. Wynne served the music well. This performance would have had me falling in love with the music but that happened more than 50 years ago.
After intermission the opening selection was lead by guest conductor Dr. Timothy Dixon, a widely traveled conductor in the U.S. and Europe and Director of Orchestral Studies at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. Dr. Dixon is an advocate for William Grant Still's (1895-1978) Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American) (1930). I thank him for my first opportunity to hear this work. Still had entered Oberlin Conservatory at age 16 and later studied with Chadwick and Edgard Varèse while supporting himself by playing in orchestras and bands. It was Chadwick who suggested that Still incorporate elements of African-American and popular musical styles in his works. An oboe opening leads to jazzy muted horns with a toe-tapping rhythm in classical form enhanced by skillfully orchestrated instrumental colors. Moderato assai “Longing” characterizes the overall mood. This gives way in the second movement, Adagio “Sorrow,” sweetened by lyricism incorporating black nightclub music of that era.
The third movement, Animato “Humor,” has a wide-open feeling including a banjo solo in a ''I Got Rhythm” sort of way with variations and a blunt ending. The writing in the last movement, Lento, con risoluzione “Aspiration,” is conventional to begin but becomes lively with a sort of fun guffaw of drums and horns and a quirky, energetic, full-out sound to climax.
As I experienced this symphony I compared it to Gershwin's orchestral music (always orchestrated by someone else) and I concluded that if Still were Jewish instead of Black we'd know his music better. Color certainly is an element in who was to become popular but Gershwin's quirky series of tunes strung together with so-so orchestration does have a common appeal. Still's conservative academic training stifled his Afrocentric music-making—a loss to us all.