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African Heritage
Symphonic Series
Chicago Sinfonietta, conducted by Paul Freeman



Volume 1:

Samuel Taylor-Coleridge: Danse Nègre, from African Suite; Petite Suite de Concert
Fela Sowande: African Suite: Nos. 1, 2, 5
William Grant Still: Symphony No. 1, "Afro-American"

CD No.: Cedille CDR 90000 055

 

 


Volume 2:

Ulysses Kay: Overture to Theater Set
George Walker: Lyric for Strings
Roque Cordero: Eight Miniatures for Small Orchestra
Adolphus Hailstork: An American Port of Call; Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed: In Memoriam: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Hale Smith: Ritual and Incantations

CD No.: Cedille CDR 90000 061

 

 


Volume 3:

Michael Abels: Global Warming
David Baker: Cello Concerto
Katinka Kleijn, cellist
William Banfield: Essay for Orchestra
Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson: Generations: Sinfonietta No. 2 for Strings

CD No.: Cedille CDR 90000 066

Review By Joe Milicia
Click here to e-mail reviewer

CD Label: See Above

 

  The Black Composers Series, a set of nine LPs of the 1970s, was among Columbia Masterworks' many invaluable recordings of contemporary music and neglected works of the past. Conductor Paul Freeman and musicologist Dominique-René de Lerma, who was to contribute the liner notes, selected works by composers of what is now called the African Diaspora, ranging from the 1770s (an album of works by the Guadaloupe-born Chevalier de Saint-Georges) to the 1970s (several American composers), all recorded with major orchestras: the London Symphony on five of the LPs, the Detroit on two, and the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Baltimore on one each. The original plan was to release three to five LPs a year for about five years, and indeed in 1974 and 1975 four each were released; but they were followed only by a final LP in 1978. Sadly, the records went out of print, though in 1986 they were re-released as a 9-LP set from the College Music Society, under the auspices of the Center for Black music Research. Recently the two Detroit LPs were reissued as a two-CD set (which I haven't heard) available directly from the DSO, but I'm not aware of any other CD remasterings.

In the meantime, Freeman has revisited six of the works on a set of three CDs from Cedille, supplemented by eight new "African Heritage" works (mostly post-1970s and American), all with the orchestra he founded, the Chicago Sinfonietta, with de Lerma again writing the notes. The recordings were made between 1995 and 2002 and issued between 2000 and 2003.

 

 

Volume 1 of the new series is more "historical" than the others, featuring works of 1895 and 1910 by the British-born Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and more recent by the Nigerian Fela Sowande and the American William Grant Still. All of the works on this CD except for Coleridge-Taylor's Petite Suite de Concert appeared in the Black Composers Series.

Coleridge-Taylor was once widely renowned in both Britain and America: it's telling that there was once a Coleridge-Taylor Society in Washington, D.C., that Theodore Roosevelt invited him to the White House during one of his three American tours, and that he was given a baton made from a tree belonging to Frederick Douglass. After a long period of relative neglect (though his oratorio Hiawatha's Wedding Feast has always been in the British repertoire) his music has been coming back into its own, with several CD compilations currently available. The 1895 Danse Nègre is the finale of a 4-movement African Suite, originally a chamber work. (One wonders why Freeman didn't record the rest—there is ample space remaining on the CD.) A sprightly piece with a slower, graceful middle section that is reprised just before the lively ending, the Danse may remind listeners of a Dvorak suite finale or even a Slavonic Dance — or of Victorian composers like Charles Villiers Stanford, under whom Coleridge-Taylor studied. What it is not likely to call to the modern listener's mind is anything African or African American, except that the main tune has something of a cakewalk rhythm. (The movement's title was taken from a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the famed African-American writer; known for his poems in dialect; he later collaborated with Coleridge-Taylor on an opera.) In pretty much the same vein is the Petite Suite (which has arch French titles for its four movements rather than African tie-ins), offered in its entirety. Long a staple of British "pops" concerts, the work is certainly pleasant, if unexciting to this listener.

Fela Sowande, who alternated living in England and in his native Nigeria in the course of his long career, had credentials as a concert organist, a jazz pianist (he played duo piano with Fats Waller), and an orchestral composer (he conducted his Nigerian Folk Symphony with the New York Philharmonic in 1964). His own African Suite for strings and harp is African in the sense that two of its five movements are based on themes by a Ghanian composer, two others on Nigerian popular or folk tunes, while "Nostalgia" is an expression of the composer's feeling for his home country. As in the Columbia set, Freeman gives us only three of the movements, creating a fast-slow-fast mini-suite — and for the new recording he considerably abbreviates the opening "Joyful Day" (2'33" vs. Columbia's 7'37"!). Again, one wonders why Freeman didn't record the whole suite or fill out the CD with an additional Sowande piece. Incidentally, Cedille lists 1930 as the date of this work, but the Columbia notes say "late 1930s" and a web source claims 1944. In any case, the suite was broadcast from London to Nigeria as an encouraging gesture during World War II.

The Chicago version offers greater delicacy, notably in the final "Akinla" (based on a West African "Highlife" tune) — the Chicago Sinfonietta's string section sounds rather smaller than the London Symphony forces used for Columbia — and Cedille's sound is certainly superior to the analog recording. But the 1974 recording makes a much better case for the music: "Joyful Day" is more exciting, more incisively played (besides longer), and "Nostalgia" is more impassioned.

Alas, this is all the more the case when one compares Freeman's performances of William Grant Still's wonderful "Afro-American" Symphony, a major statement from a still shockingly underplayed composer. The Chicago Sinfonietta plays with subtlety, but Freeman brought to his London Symphony recording a greater verve and swagger than in much of the Chicago performance. The bluesy first movement (moderato assai) offers the greatest contrast: Freeman takes a full minute longer with the LSO (7'17" vs. 6'10"), beautifully stretching out the languorous tunes and giving more rhythmic snap to the faster moments. The adagio and finale are similarly more brisk in the Chicago version, though less conspicuously different from the older performance. Columbia on this particular recording offers excellent analog sound for its era, though better in capturing the flavor of solo winds than in giving depth and fullness to the whole orchestra. Freeman and his Chicago forces do acquit themselves perfectly well in the banjo-strumming scherzo (animato), and overall offer a decent performance in excellent sound, which will do until the Columbia/LSO version gets re-released, or unless you have Neeme Järvi's version with the Detroit Symphony.

 

Volume 2 concentrates on short works by six composers, all American except for the Panamanian Roque Cordero. It's an attractive and varied program, opening with a brilliantly scored yet moody Overture to a 1968 orchestral suite by Ulysses Kay called Theater Set. (For this disc too, one wonders why Freeman didn't record the two other movements of Theater Set — 51" is hardly over-generous.) The music is in a modernist but tonal vein, with opening march-like passages that return with a near-hysterical edge in the final portion. (Kay was a nephew of jazzman King Oliver, and a student of Howard Hanson and Paul Hindemith among others, though the present piece recalls none of them.) In great contrast is George Walker's elegiac Lyric for Strings, written in 1941 when the composer was only 19. The piece was later incorporated into his First String Quartet (the opposite trajectory of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings). Freeman's earlier performance with the London Symphony may have more impassioned moments, but the Chicago version is quite respectable.

Roque Cordero (like Kay, born in 1917) has divided his career between Panama and the United States. A formative event in the early 1940s was his receiving a scholarship to study in Minneapolis, where he was championed by Dimitri Mitropoulos and studied with Ernst Krenek. His Eight Miniatures for Small Orchestra (1944, revised 1948), which take a serialist approach to Panamanian folk rhythms, may run only 12 minutes total, but the pieces are so intensely flavored and imaginatively orchestrated that they don't seem particularly "miniature"--nor does the orchestra sound "small," i.e., chamber-sized. (Listeners curious to hear another work of Cordero might check out the Detroit Symphony CDs, which contain not only Freeman's first recording of the Miniatures but a grander-scale 32-minute Violin Concerto.)

As for Hale Smith's Ritual and Incantations, another remake from the Black Composers Series, it has no program and (as far as I can discern) no separation of the "ritual" from the "incantations" (as in, say, Barber's Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance), unless an eerie passage of high string "filigree" (the composer's word) partway through marks a transition. In any case, the mood seems largely ominous or brooding, with much use made of percussion and of brief solo passages against the larger orchestra. Like the Cordero piece, this one combines Schoenbergian technique with a non-Western tradition: According to the composer's notes, the piece both makes free use of a serial set and has a section of "rhythmic overlays" derived from West African drumming. Freeman's Detroit version may have slightly more flavorful woodwinds but is less taut than the Chicago remake — the latter, in fact, at 12'45" is a full two minutes faster.

Born in 1941, Adolphus Hailstork is of a later generation than the others on this CD. He is represented by two contrasting works, separated by Ritual and Incantations. An American Port of Call feels celebratory, calling to mind the vigor of Leonard Bernstein's ballet Fancy Free with its jaunty rhythms and jazzy inflections. One can easily imagine a sailors-on-leave scenario — as in Fancy Free — considering the work's title and the fact that Hailstork teaches at a university in Norfolk (the piece was commissioned by the Virginia Symphony). Epitaph, written a decade after the slaying of Martin Luther King, Jr., is of course a somber work, but calm rather than anguished. Surely there is a deliberate quotation of Mahler's gentle flute theme at the end of the "Farewell" (Abschied) movement of Das Lied von der Erde in the middle section of this 8-minute work. The ending, following a pause, features a passage for solo strings that builds quickly to a brass outpouring — a transition from calm to tragic grandeur.

 

Volume 3 features mostly works written in the 1990s, and is all American. Michael Abels has had quite a success with his programmatic piece Global Warming. The title is a pun with contradictory meanings: our planetary future may be either a sterile desert--"painted" by solo violin and cello cadenzas in the opening and closing--or a joyous get-together of different cultures, represented by the longer middle section, which features first an Irish jig, then a sinuous Middle-Eastern dance, then an ingenious and deft combination of both for full orchestra. The rhythms are infectious, the orchestrations a joy to hear; a flute solo to begin the Irish material, and English horn and oboe for the Middle-Eastern tunes may be conventional, but Abels composes especially well for the instruments. I can't say that I hear "relentless heat punctuated by the buzzing of cicadas" in the purportedly bleak opening and closing — maybe Freeman's string soloists aren't "anguished" and "frenetic" enough (quoting from the composer's notes) — but on a more abstract level the string cadenzas do contrast effectively with the wind-and-percussion-dominated central section.

David Baker has balanced a career in jazz and classical composition. A jazz trombonist in his early career, he turned to cello, working with Janos Starker at Indiana University and writing several compositions for or in honor of the great cellist. The Black Composers Series featured Baker's 1973 Cello Sonata (one of only two chamber pieces in the series), played by Starker; the new series gives us a 1975 Cello Concerto, featuring a superb young cellist from the Chicago Symphony, Katinka Kleijn. A subtle, satisfying work, the concerto is largely atonal and delicately scored for a celloless orchestra that includes "exotic" percussion (the composer's word). Though its movements are simply listed as "Fast-Slow-Fast," the structure of each is unusual — e.g. the slow movement opens with a lengthy cadenza for the soloist. The finale is jazzy in some of its rhythms, certain harmonies, and certain percussion choices, as when the cello has an extended duet with drum set; yet it also features a "clever and charming twelve-tone row" (!) written by Janos Starker.

Like Baker, William Banfield holds an academic position and has written jazz as well as classical compositions. His 1994 Essay for Orchestra recalls Samuel Barber's famous Essays only in its making a richly symphonic statement with brevity. The piece was originally part of a work for percussion and orchestra, but (at least in its present form) solo woodwinds and occasional brass are equally on display, with strings almost entirely in the background. The percussion is hugely varied, with pitched instruments like xylophone and piano prominent. In the opening section, swirls of percussion sound and short declamations from solo winds, beginning with piccolo, are heard against a ground of string and tympani notes. A jazzier later section with denser instrumental combinations leads to a final, unexpectedly gentle and more melodic section in triple meter.

The African Heritage Symphonic Series comes full circle, in a sense, with a work by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, whose piano-teacher mother named him after our first composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. His four-movement Sinfonietta No. 2 for Strings is named Generations because each of its movements is dedicated to family members. According to the composer's notes, the first, combining the perennially popular BACH motif (Bb-A-C-B in German notation) with the folk tune "Mockingbird," is for his daughter. The second, a sarabande, is dedicated to "the matriarchs" of his family; the third, a scherzo entirely pizzicato, is for his grandson, and the fughetto finale, which uses the themes from the first movement and a new one that is African in origin, is for "the patriarchs." Each movement is striking in itself, but for this listener, each is also too long for the musical material or development it contains — with the exception of the very brief scherzo/burletta.

Still, even if one has a few reservations about certain works and performances, there is so much engaging, indeed compelling music offered on these three CDs that one can only hope that Freeman and Cedille will expand the project. 

 

 

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