William Grant Still's name is usually paired with the sobriquet "dean of African American composers." His Afro-American Symphony was composed in 1931, a year in which classical music by African Americans was close to its high-water mark. The work was said by the composer to be rooted in the blues idiom, but various influences percolate through the score, nicely integrated. There are hints of Gershwin's Summertime and I Got Rhythm in the subsidiary themes, and, given the timing, it is interesting to speculate as to who might have influenced whom. The symphony is rhythmically vibrant, and the Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra under Jindong Cai doesn't seem entirely comfortable with its loose-limbed mood (a banjo appears at one point), nor with the deep sadness of the Adagio movement. The virtue of this recording, however, lies in the presence of lesser-known music by Still, who had a long and still largely undiscovered career. Two other works from the 1930s are included. Kaintuck, "a poem for piano and orchestra," features impressionist harmonies. Both Still and his daughter Judith Anne, who contributed a short essay to the booklet, suggest that the piece was inspired by Kentucky's bluegrass landscape, and that the other Still work on the album, Dismal Swamp, metaphorically referred to slavery. It is hard to escape the feeling, however, that the quietly exultant mood of Kaintuck might not have alluded to that of a fugitive slave who was in the last stages of a nocturnal journey toward Ohio and freedom. It's a gem, and any symphonic programmer worried about scheduling Rhapsody in Blue one too many times should give this disc a listen. Dismal Swamp itself is a more modernist score that Still personally disliked, but it adds another dimension of his career to the program. The final Expansions III, by contemporary African-American composer Olly Wilson, also makes an interesting contrast with Still's crowd-pleasing works; Wilson has explicitly rejected the use of overtly African-American materials, taking the subtle position that since he himself is African American, his music will by definition embody African-American experience. His heavily percussive score serves as a good introduction to his ideas. There are versions of the Afro-American Symphony available that swing more than this one (the one by Paul Freeman and the Chicago Sinfonietta is admirable), but the disc as a whole is a useful one for collections of African-American concert music.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Symphony No. 1 ("Afro-American")|