Classical Music Album: “African-American Voices”


By Jonathan Blumhofer

Overall, this is a solid program achieved by unsatisfactory recorded sound.

This is an album which, on paper, is magnificent. William Levi Dawson Negro folk symphony and William Grant Still Afro-American The symphonies are substantial, great American symphonies. by George Walker lyrics for strings is a gem. It is a fare that should be played and recorded regularly and widely.

So, to begin with, credit goes to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) and its assistant conductor Kellen Gray for vigorously performing and recording these pieces on disc. Admittedly, the set is professional: the notes and rhythms are all there, even if it is the spots that sound like Dvorak (especially in the Dawson) that sound the most natural. Gray’s mastery of music seems solid. Readings are smooth and, when fast, often dance with agility.

The disk’s problems, such as they are, stem from its engineering. In particular, the orchestral sound lacks depth and is not clearly defined. As a result, Gray’s interpretative decisions get lost, quite literally, in the mix.

Take the Negro folk symphony. Even in the opening bars of the first movement, the fortissimo harp tracks are fully covered by the rest of the ensemble. This bodes ill. The following textures are constantly confusing: what is supposed to be in the foreground? Background? Who knows. Surely 40 string instruments playing up to the hilt shouldn’t have the same presence as 10 wind players doing the same thing. Yet sometimes here the winds prevail. That is problematic.

As a result, the structure of Symphony is essentially reduced to terms of dynamics, loud parts and quiet parts (the sections that are meant to fall in between often come out sounding soft). Accordingly, this recording of the Negro folk symphony largely comes across as a frustrating study in muffled inaudibility or raucous explosiveness.

RSNO Assistant Conductor Kellen Gray.

Fortunately, the Still is doing better. Yes, the recorded sound is still uneven, but the overall balance is more natural. As a result, the solos in the opening movement (particularly for the muted trumpet) flow colorfully. Likewise, the Adagio’s woodsy, viola-heavy moments sing, and the Scherzo’s humorous syncopations cavort – a bit heavily, yes, but with genuine spirit. The finale’s coda is rightly powerful.

Sitting between those bigger scores is Walker’s magnificent Lyrical. As in the other works, the performance would benefit from a wider sonic profile, although Gray brings out the unaffected sweetness of the music well.

Overall, then, this is a solid program achieved by unsatisfactory recorded sound. Certainly, one comes away with the feeling that meeting this conductor, this orchestra and this repertoire in person is a completely different experience. But that means the best choices for recordings of this music remain either Neeme Järvi’s 30-year-old effort with the Detroit Symphony or, for the Dawson, Stokowski’s classic performance with the American Symphony.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and has been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, kyiv Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble and Juventas New Music Group. . Since earning his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online at the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music reviews for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette.


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