I was excited to see a second installment in Linn Records’ African American Voices series with Kellen Gray conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. I was most impressed with their first collaboration, particularly with the splendid music they played – symphonies by William Levi Dawson and William Grant Still, both true pioneers of American music.
This new CD is somewhat disappointing in that the music is not as esteemed as that on the first one. I was hoping for more symphonies - Still’s 2nd, for example. Instead, we have lighter, more idiomatic, descriptive expressions, rather than ground-breaking symphonic music. However, there is much to enjoy here; it’s just completely different from the earlier release.
Beginning with the Margaret Bonds “Montgomery Variations”, I read in the excellent booklet (expertly written by Gayle Murchison) that this is her only surviving purely orchestral work, which she never heard performed. It was considered lost until being rediscovered in 2017, and I presume this is its premier recording (although that is not stated anywhere on the production). Written in 1964, it is based upon a Spiritual and was dedicated to Martin Luther King.
The main theme is announced in a matter-of-fact, rather grandiose manner, but a wonderful variety of mood, tension and atmosphere informs the following 6 variations. “Prayer Meeting” is one of my favorites, being very descriptive and well scored. The “March” is predictably (but gently) rhythmic, with the theme presented by, of all instruments, a solo bassoon, followed by the cellos. It reminded me, curiously, of Vaughan-Williams. “Dawn in Dixie” transforms the music into a slow waltz in minor key. The theme is passed around among solo woodwinds, featuring splendidly characterful playing from the orchestra principals.
“One Sunday in the South” is another favorite, depicting happier times – perhaps a picnic after church. “Lament” is filled with mourning, while the concluding “Benediction”, with some luscious string writing alternating with woodwinds in octaves, is winsome and introspect, eventually leading to a sense of hope. (The booklet describes it as “resolve, determination and faith”.)
The piece is endearing and heartfelt, sounding very traditionally “American”. It is imaginatively scored, if not quite masterfully so.
The same can be said for the concluding work, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Concert Overture, “Worship”. It has more energy and extrovert variety than the Bonds, featuring the percussion and brass more judiciously. Some of its lightheartedness can sound a bit superficial, but there is some truly moving string writing in the more heartfelt moments. The piece is itself a kind of theme and variations, but on a smaller scale than Bonds’ work - more concise and succinct, and often contrapuntal in structure. It is surely the most adeptly scored of the entire program, featuring interesting, back and forth conversations among sections of the orchestra and animated woodwind solos, and even a brief contribution from a string quartet. Very nice indeed. It lasts just 6-1/2 minutes and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The central work, Ulysses Kay’s Concerto for Orchestra, is the largest in scope and, unfortunately, the least interesting and musically satisfying. It is laid out in 3 extended movements, all rather slow-moving. The most impulsive section is the opening, rather cumbersome, Allegro moderato. That is followed by a simple, expressive Adagio (which is actually quite lovely before going a little wayward as it progresses) and concludes with an Andante, which goes on far too long for its thematic material. In sum, this is hardly the typical, virtuosic "Concerto for Orchestra" one would expect.
Written in 1948, when some composers were leaning toward serialism and avant-garde experimentalism, Kay refused to limit himself to any style - traditional African-American idioms or otherwise. Instead, his music could be considered Neoclassical. (I am paraphrasing from the booklet.) He chooses families of instruments for his Concerto, rather than more traditional solo or small groupings. Thus it is more seriously symphonic in nature than its title would imply.
It is crafted by an accomplished composer, but for me, achieves neither the heights of true symphonic invention (such as the symphonies from Still, Dawson and Price) or the intriguing, descriptive story-telling appeal of Bonds or Perkinson (to name just the two on this program). Nevertheless, it is interesting and worth hearing.
All through the program, the leadership from Kellen Gray is outstanding and the orchestral playing is first rate. However, I occasionally noted while listening that the orchestra doesn’t sound quite as committed to this music as they so obviously were in their playing on the earlier recording. Even glancing at the full-spread picture in the tri-fold cardboard enclosure, I couldn't help but notice the players don’t seem to be enjoying themselves that much – some are leaning back in their chairs looking somewhat bored, one has his legs crossed, and another in the back sits with his arms across his chest, almost asleep. Body language and all that. But in their defense, and in all honesty, these compositions are not as accomplished or skillfully orchestrated as the awe-inspiring symphonies on the first CD. And it is especially unfortunate the Kay work was chosen over something more appealing. Furthermore, with an overall program lasting just 47 minutes, surely another work could (and should) have been included.
Perhaps compensating somewhat for the CD’s short playing time, Linn includes an extravagant, 30-page booklet containing comprehensive information about the music, the composers and their musical history.
Taken as a whole, this is an interesting and enjoyable concert of music rarely (if ever) heard. It is well played and recorded and Kellen Gray demonstrates once again to be a thoroughly inspired - and inspiring - conductor. If not quite as musically rewarding as this team’s earlier release, I eagerly look forward to a 3rd Volume.