Certain works were obvious to Saddleback Symphony conductor Barry Silverman when he began putting together a spring concert program of “accessible” American music:
Saturday night’s concert at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo will include:
--A little Copland (“An Outdoor Overture” and parts of “Appalachian Spring” and “El Salon Mexico”).
--A little Bernstein (dances from “West Side Story”).
--A major work by William Grant Still (the “Afro-American” Symphony).
Who, you may ask, is William Grant Still?
“Very little of Still’s music is well known today, but he has been called the ‘dean of Afro-American composers,’ ” Silverman said.
In fact, the achievements of Still, a resident of Los Angeles for 52 years, represent several milestones in the history of black Americans in classical music:
--He was the first to conduct a major American orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936 at the Hollywood Bowl).
--He was the first to have one of his symphonies played by major orchestras around the world (his “Afro-American” Symphony, written in 1930).
--He was the first to have an opera performed by a major company (“Troubled Island” in 1949 by the New York City Opera, with choreography by George Balanchine).
Still also was one of the early black musicians to write for radio, film and television.
For all that, Still, who died in 1978, would have objected to being called a black composer, according to his daughter Judith Still Headlee, who lives in Mission Viejo where she runs William Grant Still Music, a family concern that publishes Still’s music. Her father, she says, felt that the term served only to polarize race relations.
Still was born on May 11, 1895, in Woodville, Miss., but grew up in Little Rock, Ark., where his mother moved the family soon after the death of his father, who was a musician.
Still studied at Wilberforce University, Oberlin College and the New England Conservatory of Music, where his mentors were composers George W. Chadwick and Edgard Varese.
Financial pressures, however, led him to the world of popular music, where he began working with such giants as W.C. Handy, Sophie Tucker, Paul Whiteman and Artie Shaw, with whom he built a reputation for his striking, original arrangements.
All along, however, his intent was to be known as a serious composer, and he applied himself to creating an original lyric, tonal and ethnic style.
His efforts won support from Jean Sibelius, who said “he has something to say,” conductor Leopold Stokowski, who called Still “one of our greatest American composers,” and American composer Howard Hanson. Still received honorary awards and numerous commissions.
According to daughter Headlee, Still’s music went into an eclipse from the 1950s until recently, partly due to prejudice against him personally and against his conservative musical style. Now, she reports, there seems to be renewed interest in Still’s works. She cites the more than 200 performances of his music that have taken place around the globe this year alone.
Altogether Still produced 5 symphonies, 9 operas, 19 chamber works, dozens of vocal works and scores for four ballets.
The “Afro-American” Symphony was his first and may be his most frequently played composition.
“The piece is about 25 minutes long,” Silverman said. “And it’s your standard symphony in four movements. It has lovely, beautiful melodies and is a well-constructed work.
“It’s somewhat reminiscent of Gershwin’s classical works, and the audience will hear some Gershwin- and Ravel-style orchestration in the symphony.”
The work gets its title from Still’s weaving of original blues themes into traditional symphonic forms.
“The work has lots of lovely little blues and Southern folklike melodies that weave in and out of the music,” Silverman said. “The ethnic style is not so much in the rhythms as in the melodies and harmonies, which are incorporated into an American symphonic style of composition. But the fourth movement has a restricted type of ending, big and expansive like the ending of a Bruckner symphony.”
Still’s music is accessible to the listener and, according to Silverman, presents few technical hurdles for an orchestra. “The main problem is that it is not a known work, so the musicians are not acquainted with it,” Silverman said. “The only difficulty is that of style because there are elements of ‘30s jazz swing in it. But the orchestra did a whole evening of Gershwin swing last fall, so they can handle it.
“It’s too bad, but it seems that bread-and-butter repertory seems to predominate in traditional concert programs. So many wonderful works, like this symphony, have just not been performed. But it’s very fine work, and the orchestra is thoroughly enjoying playing it.”