Monday, March 9, 2009

pioneering African-American composer William Grant Still Explored at Lincoln Center

Concert Featuring Leon Botstein Conducting American Symphony Orchestra on March 24th

Tri-State Area Students Participating in ASO’s Innovative Music Notes Arts-in-Education Program Will Provide Artwork Inspired by Still’s Life and Music to Be Viewed in Second-Floor Lobby at Avery Fisher Hall on Concert Day

The pioneering African-American composer William Grant Still (1895-1978) ranks among the greatest composers born and educated in the United States, rivaled only by Leonard Bernstein in the variety of his output. On March 22, the American Symphony Orchestra acknowledges Still’s important position in musical and African-American history, and celebrates his under-appreciated genius with its Lincoln Center concert “Revisiting William Grant Still”. The ASO performs three of Still’s landmark compositions – Darker America, Africa, and Symphony No. 2 – along with works by two of his great influences, George Whitefield Chadwick and Edgard Varèse.

A major component of the ASO’s mission is Music Notes, its arts-in-education program, and the orchestra has worked with target schools in the New York City area for many years. The 2008-09 season includes partnerships with twelve schools, from which the teachers have developed a variety of approaches for using Music Notes. St Benedict’s Preparatory High School in Newark, for example, has conducted a yearlong celebration of William Grant Still that has included residencies by ASO musicians and teachers in music classes, with related components in all humanities classes, placing Still in perspective as a figure of the Harlem Renaissance; the program also includes coaching by ASO musicians, student concerts, public art projects, and the production of a special DVD.

Every ASO concert at Lincoln Center is complemented both by a free pre-performance lecture (now in the auditorium of Avery Fisher Hall, 90 minutes before the concert), and by displays of student artwork inspired by the music’s subject matter. The importance to African-American students of learning about the Harlem Renaissance and William Grant Still – not only a greatly talented composer, but also the first Black musician to conduct a major symphony orchestra, the first to have his own symphony performed by a leading orchestra, and the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company – cannot be underestimated.

Some of the fruits of the St. Benedict’s William Grant Still project will be on display in the second-floor lobby of Avery Fisher Hall for the concert on March 22, including ceramic sculptures of African masks, acrylic paintings illustrating a line from “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes, and a selection of acrylic-on-canvas mural strips measuring up to eight feet in length.

Still was often referred to as the dean of African-American composers, but despite his myriad achievements, concertgoers today know little about him and rarely encounter his works. True to its mission, the ASO seeks to redress that injustice with this program, which also poses questions about how race has impacted Still’s musical legacy. As the ASO’s Music Director, Leon Botstein (pictured), explains:

“When this concert … was scheduled a year and a half ago, those who were betting on who might be the next president of the United States gave Barack Obama very low odds. … Eminent African-American composers of classical and concert music have been rare, just as the advent of an African-American president is unique, at least for now. What connects the career of Barack Obama with that of William Grant Still is that they both defy the easy stereotypes we associate with race. … There is no uniformity in response to the world that the color of one’s skin renders inevitable. William Grant Still was an individual who crafted an individual voice … [and] his own vision of the African-American heritage. In the end the promise of individuality and a respect for it commends democracy and freedom to us all.”

William Grant Still trained and worked with the finest teachers of his day to forge the sound of the “American Experience”, composing operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber music, art songs, film scores, and popular music. He was a Mississippian, raised in Little Rock , who studied at Wilberforce University and Oberlin, and later moved to New York to work for W. C. Handy. In her concert program essay, Catherine Parsons Smith notes that Still sought out the influential George Whitefield Chadwick for composition instruction when Handy’s show moved to Boston, and after Still’s return to New York he studied with Edgard Varèse. Varèse, although French, was very Americanized and “encouraged [Still’s] lyric gifts, introduced him to modernist scores, challenged him to experiment with form, programmed his music … and saw that he met conductors who would become his champions.” Although the modernist style influenced Still’s earlier works, he eventually absorbed and integrated more of the popular African-American idiom into his compositions.

Sunday, March 22, 3 pm
Revisiting William Grant Still
Leon Botstein conducts the American Symphony Orchestra
Avery Fisher Hall
George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931)
    Rip Van Winkle Concert Overture (1879)
William Grant Still (1895-1978)
    Darker America (1924)
    Africa (1930)
Edgard Varèse (1883-1965)
    Offrandes (1921), with Jennifer Rivera, mezzo-soprano
William Grant Still
    Symphony No. 2 (1937)

Tickets start at just $28; call 212.868.9ASO (9276). Group discounts available. All ticket sales are final.

Composer-in-Residence Richard Wilson will give an illuminating pre-concert talk at 1:45 pm in the auditorium of Avery Fisher Hall, free to ticket-holders.

Learn more about this concert and the rest of the season at www.americansymphony.org or from (212) 868-9ASO (9276).

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