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William Kreindler
MusicWeb International, July 2012

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 an army going into battle with a lovely central section describing twilight and the thoughts of the worshipper as he prepares for the 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. © 2012 MusicWeb International Read complete review



Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, May 2012

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. 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.

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 “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.” 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.

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. © 2012 Fanfare Read complete review on Fanfare



Karl Lozier
Positive Feedback Online, March 2012

Leopold Stokowski, some years ago called Still, “one of our greatest American composers”. I hear no reason to dispute that after listening to this release a few times. The impressions are there for familiarity though so is newness or freshness. Yes, I just painted all three of these attractive works with the same brush. Like one and you will like them all. Hard to judge though all the performances seem fine and the audio is excellent and truly full range. It is so very easy to recommend this fine release to all; even newcomers will pickup on the fresh melodies in a hurry. Play it for your musical friends and ask them to identify the composer. © 2012 Positive Feedback Online Read complete review



Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta, February 2012

William Grant Still (1895–1978) has often been called “the dean of African-American composers.” Just as important, his work is so very attractive. Of all the composers I known, his music is among the most immediately accessible and easiest to love. The three works on the present CD, last volume in a fine three-part survey of Still’s complete symphonies by John Jeter and the Fort Smith (Arkansas) Symphony Orchestra, all reveal abundant evidence why this should be so.

Strong primary colors, often based on simple pentatonic melodies, alert rhythms, and the ability to convey pensive, wistfully brooding moods without descending to depressive states—all are found in William Grant Still’s symphonic suite Wood Notes, depicting his love of nature. Receiving its recording premiere on the present disc, it benefits from its effective woodwind scoring and the lushly beautiful sound of the Fort Smith SO strings. © 2012 Audio Video Club of Atlanta Read complete review



Chris Hathaway
Classical 91.7 KUHA, February 2012

The orchestra plays musically, with great unity of ensemble and a fine sense of phrasing, dynamics and blending, and with a great deal of assurance. This is very expressive and colorful music… It is the kind of playing a first hearing deserves.

Twenty-one years separate the second and third symphonies. The style, melodic and harmonic language are still the same. Again, Jeter and his forces offer a completely sympathetic reading with careful attention to everything that makes for a good orchestral performance. © 2012 Classical 91.7 KUHA Read complete review



David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2012

William Grant Still became the first coloured American to have a symphony played by a major orchestra and the first to conduct one of the major league orchestras. His symphonies were largely lightweight, pleasant and undemanding on both the performer and listener… They are easy to listen to and are also amusing caricatures of the weekend break and its religious connotations. Wood Notes offers more pictures of American life, the work here receiving its world premiere recording. Originally in five movements, but published in the four we have here, it ends in sheer fun with Whippoorwill’s Shoes, the whole piece again in the world of light music. The large Fort Smith Symphony is the best known orchestra from Arkansas and, together their long established music director, John Jeter, they give hugely attractive performances. The sound quality is very good. the disc completing the Naxos release of Still’s five symphonies.






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