There is no question that Don Gillis was not a major composer. There is also no question that for most folks he provides 'light' music that is exceptionally evocative of a certain era in American music. He was, among other things, the producer of Toscanini's NBC Symphony radio broadcasts in the 1940s. But first and foremost this Texan was a composer of some of the most American-sounding music of that era. The piece of his that I first heard was his humorously-named 'Symphony No. 5 1/2' -- so-called, he cracked, because it came between Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6. Written in 1947 it was subtitled 'A Symphony for Fun' and it immediately became a hit. At ten or eleven, I heard it played by my local symphony and was enthralled. There was at least one earlier recording but this one in spectacular modern sound and idiomatic playing trumps that old one. Ian Hobson has led the Sinfonia Varsovia in a number of Gillis recordings and this one is magnificent. The hybrid SACD layer of this CD provides as marvelous sound as one is likely to hear, and the plain stereo layer is nearly as good.
Symphony No 5 1/2 is brief and has many musical puns (including satirical quotations from 'Petrushka' and the 'New World Symphony'). Written in orchestral jazz harmonies -- chords of the ninth and walking tenths abound -- it is fresh, sassy and, as its subtitle claims, great fun. The movements are titled Perpetual Emotion, Spiritual, Scherzophrenia, and Conclusion.
Also included are Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2. The First, called 'An American Symphony' could be nothing but American with its big-band harmonies and fresh-faced, even naïve, optimism. It was written and premiered before the US entered World War II but there are some hints of the gathering storm. Still the main thrust of this symphony is a celebration of all that was American -- folk tunes, popular music, religious fervor, optimism, the loneliness of the wide-open spaces and a 'gushingly naïve nationalism', as noted by booklet writer Ray Bono .
Symphony No. 2, subtitled 'A Symphony of Faith', was written in 1942 when the country had fully entered the war effort and the work evokes not only religious feeling (hymnlike tunes, chant) but nationalism (military band fanfares, fervent determination, high ideals). For me it is less effective that the other two works on this CD but that may be because I have some trouble responding to its implied religious and nationalistic feelings at this distance of time. Nonetheless, it is a neatly constructed and marvelous orchestrated work.
Gillis's musical skills are never in doubt; he was a magnificent orchestrator, a skilled tunesmith, and he managed large forms expertly. His music will sound naïve and even jingoistic to some, but on the whole they are optimistic and life-enhancing works. We are indebted to Ian Hobson and his orchestra, and to Albany Records, for bringing us so many of Gillis's works in such superb recordings. I respond to these works with a childlike enthusiasm that belie any musical sophistication I might otherwise possess; they are indeed guilty pleasures.