What a way to start the new year, with an absolutely fantastic new CD. This one features two of the best American symphonies ever composed - William Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony and William Grant Still's 1st (Afro-American). To have them together on one CD, in fabulous performances and recorded sound, is simply too much to hope for. But here it is: African American Voices, on Linn Records (now a division of OutHere Music).
Let's be clear right upfront - conductor Kellen Gray is utterly magnificent in this repertoire, showing an innate affinity for this music. He brings color, drama, enthusiasm, finesse and heartfelt emotional involvement to every phrase. And the Royal Scottish National Orchestra once again impresses mightily, with incredibly good orchestral playing from all sections. They are extremely responsive to Gray's direction, delivering nuance and involvement rarely heard, resulting in some of the most moving, musically immersive experiences I've heard in a long, long time. It's all here: rich, silky strings; heroic, golden brass; expressive woodwind solos; and sumptuous recorded sound.
I was not familiar with Kellen Gray, and have learned he was previously the Assistant Conductor of the Chicago Sinfonietta and currently Associate Conductor of the Charleston (South Carolina) Symphony. He's also Assistant Conductor of the RSNO - which might explain why they are so responsive to him on this record. There is an obvious love here, a familiarity with each other, an established rapport, which is not typically experienced from a one-off guest conducting gig followed by a quick recording session. No, this recording is something much more than that. It is very special indeed.
I admit, though, at first I was alarmed at the extremely quiet opening horn solo of the Dawson. And I had to crank up the volume a good 8-10 notches from normal to get any kind of realistic sound. And that's a lot. But once set, I was rewarded with excellent recorded sound - exquisite orchestral colors, airy textures, natural dynamics and a positively luminous acoustic.
And this music! Words can hardly describe how wonderful it is. Much attention has been focused lately on lesser-known African-American composers (Florence Price among them), but this disc instantly reminds us who the real pioneering composers were. And not "just" of African-American music, but of 20th-Century American music as a whole. Dawson and Still (along with George Gershwin) are in a league all their own with regard to creativity, originality, sophistication, orchestration and sheer musical genius. They were both contemporaries of Gershwin, although they outlived him by decades. (What an unimaginable loss to the world of music that Gershwin lived to be just 38 years old.) But nonetheless, Gershwin's influence can be heard frequently in this music - although it is interesting to note that he had not yet composed his masterpiece, Porgy and Bess (1935), when these symphonies were written, so perhaps I should revise my statement to instead observe that Gershwin was strongly influenced by Still and Dawson!
Beginning with Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony, the first movement (The Bond of Africa) is a stellar example of the excellence on offer here. After the lush opening (just listen to the silky strings Gray coaxes from this orchestra), Gray drives the Allegro with gusto and sparkle (what a splendid piccolo player!), but it's never histrionic (as Neeme Jarvi can almost sound on his splendid pair of Chandos CDs containing both of these symphonies). And the finale feels just right. In fact, tempos are perfectly chosen throughout. This Symphony may be based on folk motifs, but it is so masterfully constructed, it's not in the slightest episodic, but symphonic in scale and structure, brilliantly crafted and executed. It is compelling from start to finish.
Still's Afro-American Symphony has origins even more firmly based on Spirituals and 19th-Century Black folk dance. And right away after a slow introduction, we recognize the unmistakable incorporation of "the blues" and jazz as well. Kellen Gray embraces all these elements with conviction, infusing the score with so much life and characterization that the music becomes thoroughly, unmistakably American. And so convincingly idiomatic it envelopes the listener with a transcendent "you are there" experience. Still's music is this good, but I must emphasize it is made even more so in the way Gray brings it all so vividly to life, with a dazzling gift of story-telling.
There is a technical oddity here, though, which can't be overlooked without comment. The 3rd movement Animato (a juba dance) is transferred to disc at a noticeably higher level, closer to a more normal volume than all the rest. It jumps out much louder than everything before it, obviously recorded at a different session. (Sessions were separated by several months.) The producer/engineer certainly should have caught this and corrected the level adjustment in the final mastering. The finale returns us back to the previous "normal" volume for this CD. And musically, it is an engrossing experience in this performance of it - full of aching fervor (but never despair), heartfelt singing lines and an emotional outpouring. What an amazing and wonderful Symphony this is, helped tremendously by the sumptuous, impassioned body of sound Gray draws from this marvelous string section.
If the symphonies weren't enough, sandwiched in between them on this program is George Walker's short but moving Lyric for Strings, which is a repurposing of the slow movement of his 1st String Quartet. It is heartfelt and full of longing, again highlighting the airy, singing, loveliness of the RSNO strings.
Kellen Gray speaks directly to the heart, as well as the mind, with these recordings. Listening to this CD motivates me to explore further and enjoy more music. And that's a real success for a conductor, especially in somewhat rare repertoire. In my opinion, Gray fully deserves a Music Director/Principal Conductor position with a major symphony orchestra. Based on the present recording, he's that good. I can just imagine the things he could/would do with an orchestra like the New York Phil, for example, one which has desperately needed an inspiring conductor for such a long time. But I'd be happy to see him land such a position in Oregon, or Seattle, or Dallas, or Detroit - or any of the great American symphony orchestras which aren't quite the so-called "big 5", but should (and could) be.
In closing, this CD is a must-have for all music lovers, not only for the music itself, but for all the other qualities which make this disc so memorable - eloquent orchestral playing, luscious recorded sound, and above all, the inspired leadership from the podium. These performances are very much the equal to Neeme Jarvi's 1993 readings for Chandos, and with even better recorded sound (albeit requiring a significant boost in volume). I implore all involved to record a follow-up volume to include Still's 2nd Symphony and perhaps some of Duke Ellington's symphonic music, which is unjustly neglected.