Ian Hobson / Sinfonia Varsovia

Don Gillis: An American Symphony; A Symphony of Faith; A Symphony for Fun

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Don Gillis was a composer who was in the mold of Roy Harris or Howard Hanson. His work was exceptionally well suited to the requirements of radio's Golden Age in which he worked as a producer, serving closely with Arturo Toscanini, the NBC Symphony, and the Symphony of the Air that he sometimes conducted. Radio composers wrote music that was direct and had a clear, dramatic component, and the degree to which they absorbed modernistic elements varied. Bernard Herrmann and Raymond Scott worked for CBS, and their radio scores could be surprisingly advanced sounding, as William Paley encouraged that to an extent, he wanted CBS to be recognized as the network of progress and sophisticated tastes. NBC, headed by David Sarnoff, was devoted to high culture with a capital "C," and a good deal more conservative than CBS in its musical tastes, employing solid composers whose music was no more radical than, say, that of Ferde Grofé. Albany Records SACD, Don Gillis: Symphonies No. 1, 2 & 5 1/2 includes three symphonies, which date between 1941 and 1947 and thus fall squarely into Gillis' radio years. While none of these were designed specifically for radio, all three were heard there, and seem perfectly suited to the medium with their strongly stated melodic content, mildly modern but colorful and supportive harmonies and snappy rhythmic ideas.

Although Gillis was born in Mississippi, he was raised and educated in Texas, and even looked a little like LBJ. Gillis' Symphony No. 1: An American Symphony was composed in 1941 with the advent of World War II lurking around the corner, although it has nothing of the tension or confrontation of either Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 4 or George Antheil's same numbered symphony of the following year. It's a wide-open, "American" symphony that even President George W. Bush might like; it does have something of the expanse of Texas in it and an incurable sense of optimism. It is admirable in its straightforwardness, although the second movement runs a little long and the work is not quite as deeply involving as the third symphonies written around this time by Roy Harris and Aaron Copland. In that sense, though, Gillis' Symphony No. 2: A Symphony of Faith is an improvement; Gillis trades in a little of his natural tendency toward immediacy for a little added depth, and it works. Interestingly, Gillis intended his second symphony as an extension of the first, and both taken together make for a highly satisfying listening experience. The Symphony No. 5 1/2: A Symphony for Fun is Gillis' best-known work and a little masterpiece, mixing up dance-band scoring, broadly stated Americana, Spike Jones-like sound effects, and other elements into a short "half-symphony" only lasting 15 minutes. It was so popular in its time that even Toscanini conducted it.

The performance by Sinfonia Varsovia under Ian Hobson is perfect -- one can hardly imagine how it could be better, there is not a hair out of place in a single bar of this music. The recording is interesting -- Albany took a conventional CD of the music and uploaded it into an SACD encoder to make the "scarlet book" layer to encode the SACD. The result has kind of a hot, high-fidelity sound to it that is a tad compressed, but it suits the music very well and is both loud and clear. Albany Records' Don Gillis: Symphonies Nos. 1, 2 & 5 1/5 is not the sort of thing that obscure composer nuts or the Xenakis heads would go for, and one wonders why the potentially huge, "general" audience to which this will appeal best has not found Don Gillis yet. If you don't think classical composers have produced anything of merit since Copland wrote Billy the Kid, then is this ever for you.

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