To tell the truth, I wanted to start this review by saying that William Grant Still is one of those one-work wonders of a composer of which the opera world has so many examples (Leoncavallo, Giordano, etc., etc.). But then I listened a few times more to "Africa," given its premiere recording here. Its melodies and musical gestures may be less striking than those in Still's one big work, the Afro-American Symphony, also included on this disc. On the other hand, "Africa" has some very compelling music, too, and is colorfully orchestrated in Still's signature manner. Just listen to the soft solo for timpani at the start: this sets the mood immediately for the first movement, entitled "Land of Peace." It is indeed peaceful music but with some added spice to keep the listener on his or her toes. The last movement, "Land of Superstition," seems to me rather bland given its title, but overall, this music is an attractive travelogue in the manner of Virgil Thomson's film scores from the 1930s, anticipating them in fact by several years. Along with Thomson, Still can probably be credited with pioneering the use of pop-musical influences to effectively create local color.
That truth is even more evident in the Afro-American Symphony. You have to sit up and take notice when a symphony begins with a blues refrain that's quickly answered by a quirky little jazz riff in the winds. It's like a little scene from a musical of the 1930s: chase your blues away, says that little jazz riff. But then you realize this is a genuine symphonic first movement in well-argued sonata form, and you've got to be impressed.
The notes to this recording point out that the bouncy third movement (with banjo obbligato, first time in a symphony certainly!) has a main theme very similar to George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." Actually, Still came up with his melody before Gershwin wrote his song, but Still and Gershwin supposedly influenced one another, so maybe Gershwin cribbed a bit from Still. Hearing the very dramatic episodes in the first and last movements that seem to forecast scenes in "Porgy and Bess," I wonder if Still didn't influence Gershwin much more than the reverse.
Be that as it may, I find, as with "Africa," that the symphony is let down a bit by the finale, though it does end with an appropriately dramatic peroration, leaving a bold impression. All things considered, this is one of the best symphonies written by an American and certainly one of the most American of all.
I have nothing but praise for the performances. The Fort Smith Symphony takes this music to heart and presents it with great feeling and with the kind of abandon that comes when musicians have lived with music for a while and have gotten it into their blood. Sure, this is a regional orchestra instead of one of America's Big Five, but if so, these excellent performances just speak to the general quality of American orchestras even out in the hinterlands. Conductor John Jeter probably deserves a good deal of credit as well. And while I'm at it, kudos to the Naxos engineers too. The recording has fine presence and detail. Given Naxos' price, this disc is the way to go if you want to acquire William Grant Still's classic.