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Walter Simmons
Fanfare, July 2009

This recent release of two hefty symphonies from Naxos American Classics represents my introduction to the music of Adolphus Hailstork. Now in his late sixties, Hailstork was born in Rochester, N.Y., and was educated at the Manhattan School of Music and Michigan State University. He is currently a professor at Old Dominian University in Norfolk, Virginia, and has received many distinguished awards and commissions.

The two symphonies offered here provide a pretty illuminating impression of what Hailstork’s music is about, as they are both mature works and share much in common, although the composer’s program notes make an effort to distinguish them. (Speaking of program notes, I must say that I find it annoying when the accompanying material fails to include the dates of composition of the works on the program. As for these two symphonies, the best I can tell you is that No. 2 was composed during the late 1990s, and No. 3 sometime after that.) Despite the recency of their composition, the musical language and feel of these two works is quite traditional, harking back to the music of the Boulanger-trained composers who contributed so much to the American symphonic mainstream of the 1950s. (Although it shouldn’t need to be said, the foregoing statement is a description, not a criticism.) More specifically, they suggest something of a fusion of the chromatic, dissonant, but not atonal styles of David Diamond and Walter Piston—not surprising, because both of the latter studied with Boulanger, and Hailstork himself studied with Diamond and Boulanger (not that composers are necessarily genetic clones of their teachers). What does distinguish these two works from typical neo-Romantic Americana of the 1950s is their more active use of percussion (almost always an indication of post-1985 composition) and their use of certain African-American melodic and harmonic inflections, as well as infectious rhythmic devices that suggest a similar source. (Of course, one might note that Piston et alia were also pretty inventive in their treatment of this element as well.)

I found both symphonies to be approximately equally satisfying—enjoyable enough to warrant deeper acquaintance, with slow movements of considerable beauty and emotional conviction, while the faster movements are pleasingly exuberant. To my ears, they are more graceful than Diamond, but less concise than Piston. In fact, my chief criticism of both works is that as rather lengthy, four-movement affairs, each approximately 40 minutes long, neither has the expressive weight to justify or sustain such an expanse of time. The result is that the outer movements of both works—though entertaining enough—are quite episodic, and seem as though they might easily have been shortened without much sacrifice of their overall impact. The slow movements, moving as they are, might have benefited from some pruning as well.

The Symphony No. 2 was commissioned by and introduced by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The composer indicates that the slow movement was written in response to a visit to Ghana, where he witnessed dungeons in which slaves had been housed before being shipped overseas. It is quite affecting, as noted above. I must say that the showstopper of the work—of the entire CD, in fact—(I could actually imagine a performance being interrupted for an immediate encore)—is the Scherzo of No. 2. At five minutes, it is simply sensational, and too exciting to be so short. The finale also has much brilliant music, and concludes triumphantly.

At this point I prefer No. 2 slightly to No. 3, but the performance of No. 3 (commissioned and introduced by the orchestra and conductor represented here) seems somewhat stronger than that of No. 2. I think that No. 2 would benefit tremendously from a tighter, more incisive, and more full-throated reading; there is a tentative quality here that seems to sap its energy and constrain the work’s full impact.
The Symphony No. 3 adds a touch of Reichian minimalism to the American symphonic mix (and if that sounds too unlikely to you, I urge you to listen and hear for yourself). Of course, what I am likening to Reich may be the influence of African drumming, which, after all, was a major factor on that composer’s development. All in all, this, like its predecessor, is a very enjoyable work, though it lacks a sense of creative urgency that might enable it to make a stronger impact or justify its length.

American Record Guide, June 2007

Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941) is a black American composer currently Eminent Scholar and Professor of Music at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He studied primarily with H Owen Reed at Michigan State, but also worked with David Diamond and Vittorio Giannini at the Manhattan School of Music in the 60s, and with Nadia Boulanger as well. With that background, one would expect Mr Hailstork to be firmly entrenched in old-fashioned American symphonic tradition, and that is indeed exactly what we get here.

The Third Symphony (2003?) comes first and for good reason. This is a vibrant piece of Americana that you don't hear a lot of anymore, with foot-tapping big-city pentatonic motors, an expansive open-spaced slow movement, a humorous multiple-metered scherzo, and a cyclical, virtuosic finale (a little awkward in execution, but fun anyway). It would be good to hear this piece in better sound and with a better orchestra, but I wouldn't hold my breath. If you're attracted to Copland, Bernstein, Barber, and the conservative American symphonic style (I even heard some John Alden Carpenter in the mix), you'll want to hear this. I enjoyed it.

The Second Symphony (1999) is considerably less cheery. The composer took a trip to Ghana in 1996, seeing up close where America's slaves came from, and that experience’s emotional effect is firmly embedded in this composition. The first movement opens with snarls of pain. Its main thematic material resembles those motors of the Third Symphony, but here they are distorted and more angular. The slow movement opens with a lonely English Horn solo that can't help but bring to mind memories of Dvořak's New World Symphony, but this New World is going to be considerably less homey. The slave's pain is palpable, the atmosphere funereal. After an intense scherzo, the finale opens with a lonely clarinet solo out of Sibelius 1, followed by wishful halos of Vaughan Williams. After more intense development and what sounds like a quotation of a spiritual, the work ends (oddly?) with Great American Symphony triumph.

These are heartfelt, serious works by an underrated American composer who doesn't choose to fit in with the major stylistic currents the postwar 20th Century. This was a pleasant surprise, but I wish the sound were better. And Mr Hailstork's scoring requires more than this provincial orchestra can offer.

Scot Cantrell
The Dallas Morning News, May 2007

COMPOSER OF COLOR: Sadly, a black composer of concert music is still unusual enough to warrant comment. One who's had success is Adolphus Hailstork, born in 1941 in Rochester, N.Y., educated at the Manhattan School of Music and Michigan State University. Holding a doctorate from Michigan State, he's artist-in-residence at Old Dominion University in Virginia.

FRANCO-AMERICAN: Dr. Hailstork's teachers included Nadia Boulanger and David Diamond. And his Second and Third symphonies are very much products of the Franco-American tradition cultivated by composers including Aaron Copland and Walter Piston. Tonal as can be, these could pass for pieces composed 60 years ago, not necessarily a bad thing. Fast movements are pleasantly angular and athletic; the Second Symphony's are especially Copland-esque. Slow movements favor delicately bittersweet harmonies.

BOTTOM LINE: The Grand Rapids Symphony has been a springboard for up-and-coming conductors including Semyon Bychkov and Catherine Comet. Though lacking the finesse of a top-rung orchestra, it plays eagerly for its present music director, David Lockington. Sound is vivid, but could use a little more warmth.

Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, May 2007

Music that will surprise and delight, from an esoteric source.

This composer is a man known to me only by name—I had never heard any of his music before this disc arrived. He is not exactly a stranger to recordings, but there are only a few devoted solely to his music. Still, a talent like this deserves to be heard, and I am a little embarrassed that I have not encountered him before, despite the fact that he seems quite successful particularly in the choral realm, and has had some big names perform his work. I guess you can’t hear everybody.

These two pieces date from the last 12 years, and are as fine an example of contemporary symphonic writing as I have come across in that time period. Symphony 2, originally intended as a work of “pure” music, had a type of program thrust upon it after the composer visited the forts along the coast of Ghana, Africa, and saw the dungeons where the slaves were being held for shipment to America. This impression forced its way into the work, and although only the second movement is indicative of this scene, the entire symphony has a disturbed feeling about it, the sadness and pathetic nature of the slave trade casting a sort of net over each movement. But all is not despair, and even if it were this would not be a reason to avoid this unsettling yet still oddly beautiful piece of music that ends on a note of hope.

The third symphony is a different animal completely. The composer’s comment that the piece is “lighter in approach” than the second symphony is an understatement, for the two symphonies are light years apart. Without knowing the man, I would guess that this piece is more reflective of his true nature and optimistic outlook. It has remembrances of minimalism in it, with its repetitive rhythmic arguments and flurries of melody, but this is far more substantial and developmental than any minimalist effort. The trumpet tune that opens the work serves as the take off point for the whole work, and I was absolutely delighted by every minute of this engaging piece.

The highly-augmented Grand Rapids Symphony plays this music with love and commitment, and conductor Lockington has definitely found the emotional core of both works. Naxos supplies fine sound (De Vos Performance Hall in Michigan), and for the lowjohn price you can hardly go wrong. This is one of those sleeper discs that surprise you every so often. Give it a try! The composer currently is a professor of music at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, February 2007

These two symphonies by American composer Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941) are well worth calling to your attention. Written in the last ten years, they're both in the standard four movements and fall into the late romantic category. They're full of those wonderful western sounding rhythms and themes so typical of American composers like Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland and Don Gillis. The second symphony opens in a sinister way with what almost sounds like an American Indian war dance. Repeated highly rhythmic passages, which must be a Hailstork calling card, lead to an eerie, more subdued central section. The war dance then resumes and the movement concludes just like it began. The grave which follows is a mournful extended chorale that's quite affecting and a great showpiece for the winds. It was apparently inspired by a trip the composer made to Ghana on the west coast of Africa, where he saw the dungeons used for holding slaves prior to their shipment overseas. A syncopated, insistently strutting scherzo comes next, setting the stage for the finale. This begins with a passage that features a contemplative clarinet, mystical strings and an interrogatory flute that may bring to mind Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question. A frenzy of orchestral activity follows with those “Hailstork repeats” much in evidence. The symphony ends in a blaze of glory with a big-tune played by the strings that's extolled in the brass and reinforced by the percussion. The third symphony begins in what might be described as a state of joyful agitation with sparkling staccato passages that may remind you of the Sunday Morning Interlude (No. 3) in Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes. After the first movement, there’s a moving heartfelt moderato and a sprightly scherzo with all the effervescence of a vintage champagne. The finale begins with a reflective melody in the strings punctuated by exuberant “Hailstork repeats” in the winds and brass. This gives way to a lovely reflective passage reminiscent of the slow movement, but the opening transports of joy return, and the piece ends just as it began on a Brittenesque note. This work is dedicated to the Grand Rapids Symphony, and under their conductor David Lockington they give a marvelous account of it as well as the preceding one. The recorded sound is good, but a bit on the dry side.

Patrick C Waller
MusicWeb International, March 2006

Adolphus Hailstork was a name previously unfamiliar to me. I volunteered to review the disc partly out of curiosity and also because, in my experience, the Naxos American Classics series hasn’t yet produced a dud. And that hasn’t changed because these two symphonies, the product of the last decade or so, are certainly worth a place in the catalogue. Within the confines of conventional structures and harmonies – which has the benefit of making the music immediately approachable – Hailstork manages to write symphonies that appeal without being trivial, rather as George Lloyd did before him on the other side of the Atlantic. Born in Rochester, New York he studied composition in Michigan and lists Nadia Boulanger and David Diamond amongst his teachers. Since 1977 he has held academic posts in Virginia.

The Third Symphony is given before the second, presumably because it is considerably lighter in feeling. To quote the composer, a catchy trumpet tune is used “as the point of departure”. This spawns some of the later material without being as all-encompassing as the trumpet solo which opens Schmidt’s Fourth Symphony. The movement is marked Vivace and is notable later on for imaginative use of percussion, including the marimba. The movement which follows feels slow but is actually marked Moderato, and it is a gem. This is song-like, deeply felt and contains some wonderful string writing. A scherzo follows attacca and percussion are once again prominent, supporting the complex rhythmic material. A central section is no trio but blues-derived. The finale is by turns angular, reflective and then joyous as the trumpet theme returns and is amplified to provide a satisfying conclusion to a most attractive work.

The Second Symphony is a tougher nut to crack but equally rewarding. It was partly inspired by a visit to Ghana where the composer saw the dungeons in which slaves were held before being shipped to America. The composer wrote it whilst reflecting on the struggle against slavery but it is not overtly programmatic. The work is structurally similar to the third symphony – four movements with the slow movement second – but there is also a slow introduction to the finale beginning with a notable and beautifully rendered clarinet solo. The opening Allegro is initially frightening – the brass positively screams over initially passive strings – and it then builds up considerable momentum. The second movement is elegiac, a brooding cor anglais solo framing some darkly powerful music which is certainly evocative of dungeons. The dance-like third movement offers some light relief but not to the exclusion of a feeling of struggle. That feeling is ultimately only overcome at the very end of the finale – an optimistic but hardly jubilant close.

The Grand Rapids Symphony hails from Michigan and their conductor David Lockington from Britain although he has been resident in the USA in 1978. They commissioned the Third Symphony and have championed the music of this composer. Clearly a fine orchestra, their playing is agile and clean, and Lockington’s direction of both works is lucid.

The recorded sound is rather good and serves the music well. Liner notes are uncredited and on the brief side. The space saved is given over to listing all the performing musicians, quite a few of whom are designated “supplemental”, emphasising the fairly large forces involved.

This is a fine addition to the American Classics series. These works push back no boundaries but support the notion that the symphony may yet be alive and well.

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