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Merlin Patterson
Fanfare, November 2010

The real stars of Naxos 8.559603 are not the symphonies of William Grant Still, but rather the splendid playing of the Fort Smith Arkansas Symphony and the inspired interpretations of its music director, John Jeter.

Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, November 2010

William Grant Still’s music is a powerful antidepressant—a dose of optimism and an infusion of hope. The symphonies suggest Copland at his folksy best, yet are not derivative, and Poem for Orchestra ends with a genuinely moving burst of radiant glory. One feels that all differences—personal, local, national, and global—can be settled as long as it is possible for music such as this to be composed and performed. The performances show a great deal of polish and affection.

William J. Zick
AfriClassical, April 2010

…the Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 of Still were released on Naxos 8.559603 (2009) and are worth hearing along with his earlier symphonies.

James D. Watts Jr.
Tulsa World, March 2010

The Fort Smith Symphony, led by music director John Jeter, gives these works suitably robust performances. Still wrote music that was lyrical and accessible, and the orchestra’s playing is open and direct.

A number of the players on this recording will be familiar to Tulsa audiences, as several also perform with the Tulsa Symphony and the Signature Symphony at Tulsa Community College.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, February 2010

Often referred to as the Dean of Afro-American music, still was the first African-American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra (he led the LA Philharmonic in 1936), the first to have a symphony of his own performed by a major American orchestra (his Symphony No.1, Afro American, was performed by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Howard Hanson in 1931), the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company (Troubled Island was given by the New York City Opera in 1949), and the first to have an opera performed on national television.

Still grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and it was here that he started violin lessons when 14 years old. He also taught himself the clarinet, saxophone, oboe, double bass, cello and viola, and displayed a great interest in music, which was aided by his stepfather buying him RCA records of classical music. Still once said “I didn’t study piano. I think I am much better off for it actually because I have always been greatly interested in instrumentation and wanted to study it.” It is probably his orchestral music which is best known to most people.

He was the arranger for W.C. Handy’s band, and orchestrated Harlem stride pianist James P Johnson’s Yamekraw for piano and orchestra—which Johnson saw as a complement to Rhapsody in Blue. In the 1930s he worked as an arranger for a couple of popular radio shows and went to Hollywood where he worked in the film business. He studied at Wilberforce University, and later with George Whitefield Chadwick and Edgard Varèse. With this real melting pot of influences behind him it’s no wonder that his music is quite easy to listen to and has many points of reference for the listener.

The three pieces on this disk are well worth investigating. The Poem for Orchestra starts in a most uncompromising way, making one think that this is not going to be an easy ride. It soon settles down and, in places, could almost be one of Howard Hanson’s outdoor pieces. The 4th Symphony is full of homespun Americana, and not a little Gershwin in the first movement, which gives way to a beautiful slow movement, gentle and flowing. The “scherzo” is an easy-going piece, in the manner of Morton Gould’s Pavan (from his 2nd Symphonette). The finale starts with a tune which is very reminiscent of the great theme from Howard Hanson’s 2nd Symphony, but this soon goes and the long fast section is well built.

The later 5th Symphony is very similar in outlook. But it is less derivative, having a stronger personality, harder-edged themes, and is rather more interestingly scored.

These are delightful works but there are two important things which must be borne in mind. First of all, much of the writing is derivative of other American composers, especially Gershwin and Hanson. Secondly, neither work is a Symphony: the material and working out isn’t strong enough to sustain a work on such a scale. That said, these pieces are well worth investigating, for they show a sidelight on American music which has gone relatively unheard over the years.

The recording is bright and clear, the performances are excellent, and the notes are good. This is indeed a bargain.

Lawrence A Johnson
Gramophone, February 2010

A valuable addition to the Still discography with solid performances

This follow-up to the initial release of William Grant Still’s Symphony No 1 by John Jeter and the Fort Smith Symphony on Naxos is a welcome addition to the “American Classics” series, helping to flesh out our view of Still’s orchestral oeuvre, much of which remains little known and largely neglected. The Afro-American Symphony (No 1) remains Still’s best known and most-performed work but the music on this new disc is equally diverting and attractive.

Dissatisfied with his Third Symphony, Still withdrew it and later revised the work, reissuing it as his Symphony No 5, subtitled Western Hemisphere. Still’s mystical programme, as communicated by his wife, tells of four movements corresponding to “the vigorous, life-sustaining forces of the Hemisphere”, its “natural beauties”, “nervous energy” and “overshadowing spirit of kindness and justice”.

Despite the cosmic inspiration, the music inhabits much of the light, piquant and lyrical sound world of the First Symphony. The life-sustaining forces of the first movement are reflected in a brief three-minute bluesy opening that grows more impassioned before a rather sudden coda. The ensuing languorous slow movement has one of those artless, folk-like themes characteristic of Still, with tender playing by the Fort Smith strings. The third movement is far too slow and laboured for music marked “Energetically”, feeling more like a cautious run-through and failing to supply the vigour and contrast Still clearly wanted. The finale at 6′48″ is the longest of the short-breathed movements, offering another quaint, lightly syncopated finale. Despite the grandiose programme, the music is cast in Still’s light and charming style, lovable rather than deep yet tuneful and attractive, and the swelling of the finale’s expansive main theme at the coda—one of Still’s finest melodic inspirations—is hard to resist.

Still’s Poem for Orchestra offers another allegorical programme of a “world being reborn spiritually after darkness and desolation”. This 10-minute tone-poem is one of the composer’s stronger works with a breadth and eloquence that goes beyond the merely picturesque. The Poem ends rather peremptorily, yet makes up for it with another of those seemingly effortless Still melodies that sound like you’ve heard them before. Jeter and the Forth Smith musicians provide solid advocacy though ideally one would like greater symphonic weight and a richer palette of colours. What one would give for an off-air recording of the 1944 Cleveland Orchestra premiere.

Still was an unabashed patriot and his Fourth Symphony was written to represent “the spirit of the American people”. Despite the subtitle Autochthonous, Still said the work is not intended to paint the North American Indian, though there is a decided primitivist native musical contour to the opening section. The second movement offers one of Still’s brooding and evocative slow movements, with the ensuing lilting jazz-flavoured Scherzo a real charmer, leading to a noble, rich-textured finale.

If Still’s music has a fault it’s that much of it sounds alike and it only infrequently plumbs an expressive depth beyond the lyrical lilt and rustic charm. Yet this is a valuable instalment in the “American Classics” series that fills in significant voids in Still’s discography, with solid, dedicated performances from Jeter and the Arkansas orchestra. Would it be too much to hope for a new recording of Still’s long-neglected opera, Troubled Island?

David Hurwitz, January 2010

William Grant Still’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies are saddled with bombastic and ridiculous titles that have little or nothing to do with the musical reality of what you will actually hear on listening to them, so I choose to ignore them. In truth, Still wasn’t a particularly adept symphonist in the traditional sense—in qualities such as rigorous development and economical exploitation of thematic material. He was a melodist, and a very good one. The slow movements (and scherzos) of both symphonies are extremely beautiful, graceful, elegant, and sincere. In quicker music he tends to become repetitious; but as if understanding his real strengths, he fills both works with lovely, lyrical tunes at slow to moderate tempos. This makes the quicker music an effective contrast, but as I said, it’s not terribly symphonic. No matter; this is very enjoyable stuff, sort of a cross between George Gershwin and Howard Hanson (well, probably better than the latter for the most part).

The Poem for Orchestra may be the best piece on the disc, and not because it’s less ambitious. In fact, at 10 minutes it lasts longer than any single movement in either symphony, but its contrasting episodes are very effectively structured into a cohesive whole. The Fort Smith (Arkansas) Symphony, not quite a full-time group when last I checked, plays this not-terribly-difficult music warmly and accurately. Of course, I could imagine a bit more snap to the rhythm, a touch more heft at the climaxes, but conductor John Jeter ensures that nothing gets in the way of the listener’s enjoyment, these works are so attractive and audience-friendly that there’s no reason to quibble. Definitely worth a listen if you collect 20th-century American music.

Robert Benson, January 2010

…this new addition to the Naxos American Classics series also features John Jeter conducting the Fort Smith Symphony: Symphonies 4 and 5, and Poem for Orchestra. All of these have effusive descriptions that seem to have little to do with the music…

Carl Bauman
American Record Guide, January 2010

The Fort Smith Arkansas Symphony…play quite well and do justice to William Grant Still’s music…these works…are…worth knowing…

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Jean-Yves Duperron
Classical Music Sentinel, January 2010

William Grant Still (1895–1978), was born to a family which had African-American, Native-American and European roots. His father, according to some sources, was a college professor who died before William was born, and according to others, was a bandmaster who died when William was three years old. His mother was a school teacher who wanted him to pursue medical studies, but his interest in music was strong enough for him to give up medicine for composition. His two main composition teachers were at completely different ends of the spectrum. George Chadwick, the ultra-conservative, and Edgar Varèse, the ultra-modernist. I’m surprised Still managed to establish his own style from such opposite influences. His music is a combination of traditional, neo-romantic harmonies and forms, with an added blend of blues, spirituals and other folk influences.

His Symphony No. 5 ‘Western Hemisphere’ opens this recording with a busy first movement, loaded with syncopated rhythms which build to a march-like climax with an effective dramatic ending. The second movement, marked (Slower, and with utmost grace) is very imaginative, and displays orchestration skills blending beautiful melodies in the strings flowing atop an orchestral pulse driving everything forward. The rest of the work is full of color and energy, and the finale of the last movement has a kind of ‘Gone With the Wind’ feel to it.

The Poem for Orchestra which follows is a darker and more serious work depicting the world being reborn spiritually after a period of darkness, and slowly builds to a bright and powerful ending with a sweeping melody.

The Symphony No. 4 ‘Autochthonous’ represents the spirit of the various American people, and the coming together of different cultures. It starts with a Native-American motif which slowly builds into a rousing march. Lots of melancholic episodes lead us to the slow final movement based on a strong and flowing melody which builds to a powerful ending bursting with optimism. To me this work sounds like a blend of American traditional folk like Stephen Foster, and the grand gestures of Grofé’s ‘Grand Canyon Suite’, all built upon a subtle base of European tradition.

These two symphonies are given their world première recordings on this fine Naxos CD, and if I am not mistaking, this is only the second recording by the Fort Smith Symphony Orchestra of Arkansas and their conductor John Jeter. Their first was actually more music by the same composer. This recording is a strong new addition to the Naxos American Classics series, one of the most comprehensive series of recordings on the market today.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, December 2009

One of America’s foremost Black composers, William Grant Still (1895–1978) is probably best remembered for his Afro-American Symphony (No. 1, 1930). While the three symphonic selections here may not have the depth of Ives (1874–1954, see the recommendation above) or Copland (1900–1990), he was an accomplished melodist, arranger and orchestrator whose creations are instantly approachable. Listening to these world première recordings you’ll find echoes of other American composers such as Arthur Foote (1853–1937, see the newsletter of 31 July 2009), George Whitefield Chadwick (1854–1931), with whom William studied, John Alden Carpenter (1876–1951, see the newsletter of 18 April 2006) and Howard Hanson (1896–1981).

Our program begins with the last of Still’s five symphonies, which bears the grandiose title “Western Hemisphere” (see the album notes for an explanation of it). Originally written in 1945, it first appeared as his third symphony, which he soon withdrew, later replacing it with entirely different music (not currently available on disc). But not one to waste his creative efforts, in 1970 he revised what he’d discarded, issuing it as his four-movement fifth symphony.

There’s a compelling urgency about the opening movement that immediately draws the listener in. The slow one that follows could well be a musical portrait of some tropical paradise, while the mechanistic energetic third evokes images of whirling gears and reciprocating pistons. The richly orchestrated finale takes the form of a rondo. It has a magnificent recurring theme that gradually attains big tune status, ending the work with great optimism.

A product of the World War II years, the Poem for Orchestra was completed in 1944. It ranks as one of Still’s finest symphonic works, and would seem to have as its underlying concept the time-honored idea of “from darkness into light.” The troubled opening paints a picture of a war-ravaged land and incites feelings of despair. As the music progresses the mood becomes more hopeful with the introduction of another outstanding Still melody. This builds to a radiant climax, but the work ends on an ambivalent chord which may reflect apprehension about the future.

The disc concludes with Still’s fourth symphony entitled “Autochthonous.” The subtitle literally means aboriginal or indigenous, and the composer says its intent here is to connote the spirit of the American people. Completed in 1947, it’s also in four movements, each representing different aspects of American society.

The robust opening supposedly celebrates US industriousness. But quite honestly with its references to Native American melodies and rhythms it sounds more like a paean to the Old West (see the newsletter of 27 November 2009). The following slow movement begins and ends pensively with a central episode that sounds more in keeping with that industriousness mentioned before. The next section is a jazzy toe-tapping number, and one of the high points of this release. Hearing it you can easily understand why Paul Whiteman (1890–1967, see the newsletter of 13 August 2008) hired William Grant as one of his arrangers.

The finale starts reverentially with an opening theme vaguely reminiscent of one in the first movement of Hanson’s Romantic Symphony (No. 2, 1930). The tempo soon accelerates with some busy music containing a catchy little riff [track-9, beginning at 03:35] which will infect the rest of the symphony—try singing “I wish I had a dog” to it! The Indians from the first movement then make a final appearance, and the work ends in celestial triumph—chimes and all—as the Hanson idea returns.

The Grosse Fuge (1826) this music is not! On the contrary, there’s a “Pops” simplicity and directness that give it immediate appeal, but in the wrong hands can also turn it into some pretty mundane stuff. Fortunately that’s not the case here thanks to conductor John Jeter’s careful attention to dynamic, rhythmic, and orchestral detail. He coaxes superb playing from the Arkansas Fort Smith Symphony, whose members account themselves extremely well. They are definitely a class act, and you’ll find their committed performances make this music all the more enjoyable with repeated listening.

These are very musical sounding recordings across a convincing soundstage in a warm acoustic. The instrumental tone is quite natural except for the extreme low end, which could be a bit cleaner, particularly when the bass drum makes its appearance.

WRUV Reviews, December 2009

African-American composer/conductor/musician Still was “the first” in many areas of the American music world given the racism which limited African-Americans’ opportunities during the first half of the last century. His works are neo-romantic, with elements from jazz, blues and spirituals…delightful, bouncy and witty!

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, November 2009

William Grant Still was nothing if not a practical musician. Long before he aspired to symphonies he had seen service as an editor for W.C. Handy (composer of St Louis Blues) and Artie Shaw (whose Frenesi he orchestrated), an arranger for jazz groups and a pit orchestra musician able to turn his hand to any immediate task. His folk-inflected Symphony No. 1 ‘Afro-American’ dates from his time (1930s) in Los Angeles arranging for Paul Whiteman and moving into film and radio music.

His Fourth Symphony with its loquacious and seemingly easy way with popular culture influences including spirituals, blues, jazz, shows and Western film manners is superbly fluent—the mix unassailably resolved with no awkwardness or seams. It’s music of 1940s smiling confidence—chromium yet yielding and flowing with a guileless Dvoƙákian pleasure from the pioneer’s limitless horizons to Ravelian introspection. This is very pleasing music with ideas couched in touching terms—as in the epic, deeply touching and wondering-wandering ‘chorale’ theme in the finale of the Fourth. The Fourth was given its first performance under Victor Alessandro and the Oklahoma City Symphony Orchestra on 18 March 1951.

The four movement Fifth Symphony has a convoluted history but its premiere was given by the Oberlin College Orchestra under Robert Baustian on 9 November 1970. It’s a compact work with the movements dovetailing most naturally. Those with a predilection for folk romantic writing will find this work irresistible. Moments here and there are reminiscent of Hanson, Harris and Gershwin but nothing to suggest a tired imaginative resource—quite the contrary. It has the lovely flowing innocence of the Fourth yet is not without creative tension.

The Poem for Orchestra was a commission from the Kulas American Composers’ Fund for the Cleveland Orchestra. Erich Leinsdorf was behind the idea. It was premiered by the Cleveland Symphony conducted by Rudolph Ringwall on 7 and 9 December 1944. A wartime work, it has an almost Baxian tense quality heard especially in the flurrying woodwind. This is moderated by one of Still’s slippery and superbly rounded motifs. Finally there’s a gleaming Delian deliquescence (6:40) with just a suggestion of a sentimental tear. The Poem is well worth programming first to catch something of the essence of the orchestral Still.

David Ciucevich Jr., in his notes, points to Still’s many firsts as an African-American: first symphony performed by a major symphony orchestra (1935, New York Philharmonic, Afro-American); first to conduct a major orchestra (1936, Los Angeles Philharmonic); “first to conduct an orchestra in the Deep South (1955, New Orleans Philharmonic); first to have an opera produced by a major company (1949, Troubled Island, New York City Opera), and first to have an opera broadcast on television (posthumously in 1981, A Bayou Legend, PBS).”

This fascinating recording was part-facilitated by a grant from the Department of Arkansas Heritage and the Fort Smith Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. Let’s now hear the symphonies 2 and 3.

I do hope that Naxos American Classics will pick up Arthur Farwell’s Rudolph Gott symphony and Piano Quintet (both epic works), Roy Harris’s symphonies 10–14, Edward Burlinghame Hill’s concertos and Frederick Converse’s symphonies. Meantime revel in these fine and likeably accessible works.

James Leonard, November 2009

The three works on this disc, the Fourth and Fifth symphonies and Poem for Orchestra by American composer William Grant Still, are well-crafted and wholeheartedly sincere. Still manifestly means everything he says, and clearly knows how to say it, with strong conviction and complete confidence. His themes are vigorous or sprightly, his harmonies voluptuous or spiky, and his rhythms propulsive or sultry, while his developments are cogent and his forms never longer than they need to be…the Fort Smith Symphony and conductor John Jeter deliver well-crafted and wholeheartedly sincere accounts of Still’s works. The Arkansas orchestra is up to the works’ technical and emotional demands, and Jeter does all that can reasonably be expected of a conductor.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2009

William Grant Still broke white domination in American classical music, becoming the first coloured composer to have a symphony played by a major orchestra. He also became a conductor of repute, though in the later part of his life he concentrated on a large output of new compositions, remaining wedded to tonal music at a time when it was long out of fashion. Both the Fourth and Fifth symphonies are short and programmatic, and those just coming to Still should take a look at the painting on the disc’s sleeve, for it epitomises the content. Mostly gentle, often thoughtful, they are a little short on dramatic and strong dynamic contrasts, but make pleasant enough listening, the haunting melody in the second of the Fifth quickly entering your memory bank, for this is music that could well have served as background to Hollywood films of life deep in rural America. Poem dates from 1944, its stressed opening reflecting on the Second World War, the music eventually giving way to hope for a virile world reborn. It is a more hard-hitting concept than the two symphonies. The Fort Smith Symphony is the major orchestra in Arkansas State, its origins dating back to 1923, John Jeter having become their conductor twelve years ago, and though I doubt that any of the disc will be in their normal repertoire, they play it with the affection and enthusiasm that overrides moments of edgy string intonation. Play the disc at a higher than normal volume setting for the best results.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group