John Nardolillo

George Frederick McKay: Epoch - An American Dance Symphony

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Seattle-based George Frederick McKay is one of many American composers whose works have been revived by the indefatigable Naxos label, and there are points of interest in nearly all of them. The grandiosely titled Epoch: An American Dance Symphony, composed in 1935, originally involved dancers, lighting, and stagecraft. Those elements might enhance the piece, and indeed this example of American Gesamtkunstwerk would be worth attempting in that way. It's an ambitious piece, but it is performed here by a university orchestra and chorus, and the whole shebang would seem to be within reach of a good university music and theater program. One can understand why Epoch has been forgotten as a piece of absolute music: there just seems to be too much packed into it. The subtitle "An American Dance Symphony" is only intermittently applicable to the music. The four movements -- "Symbolic Portrait," "Pastoral," "Westward!," and "Machine Age Blues" -- seem to indicate historical themes, but then the listener is introduced to a detailed program, in the manner of the program symphony of the nineenth century, that links episodes in the music to the careers or simply the literary themes of four poets: Edgar Allan Poe (whose name is misspelled in the booklet), Sidney Lanier, Walt Whitman, and Carl Sandburg, respectively. The problem with these multiple overarching concepts is that it's hard to make all the layers fit together, and the listener who wants to follow the work at the local level is going to be doing a lot of page-flipping. The opening movement wanders, the western scenes are not the equal of Copland's, the negative vision of jazz is a bit annoying, and the invention in the music is distinguished more by abundance than by consistency. All this said, the work's energy results in plenty of memorable moments. The use of a wordless women's chorus in the second movement is one, and here the University of Kentucky Women's Choir acquits itself as well as could be desired. The University of Kentucky Symphony is impressive in a work that, while designed for a collegiate environment, exposes every instrument in the orchestra at one time or another, and the university's concert hall is unusually good acoustically. There's enough here to make you want to hear and see the work as it was originally conceived, and to find out whether the different aspects reinforce and clarify each other. Is there anyone who remembers the original production? Dance is only imperfectly notated, and records of stage and lighting design are usually sketchy.

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