LA Phil Celebrates Black Composers In Harlem Revival


By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – February is Black History Month, and in its zeal to cover as many bases as possible in its centennial season, the Los Angeles Philharmonic made a rare gesture in that direction. The orchestra devoted an entire weekend at Walt Disney Concert Hall (Feb. 16-17) to a pair of “Harlem Renaissance” programs anchored by the symphonies of William Grant Still, a musical pioneer who happened to be a longtime Los Angeles resident, from the early 1930s until his death in 1978.

William Grant Still at the keyboard.

Alas, nowadays it may be necessary to lay out exactly who Still was. In an America that was still hostile to African-American musicians who dared to step out of the category of entertainment into the realm of so-called high art, Still managed a cartload of firsts. He was the first African-American to have a symphony of his played by a major orchestra, the first to conduct a major symphony orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Hollywood Bowl in 1936), the first to conduct a white radio orchestra in New York, and the first to conduct in the Deep South. His Troubled Island was the first opera by a black composer to be produced by a major opera company.

In his time, Still was one of the busiest and most respected musicians in the country. He wrote five symphonies, ten operas, four ballets, orchestral pieces, chamber music, choral music. A catalogue of his music has 290 titles, and there are more that are lost or otherwise unavailable. He arranged music for films and worked as a staff arranger for big band leader Artie Shaw, who recorded Still’s “The Blues” Parts 1 and 2 from his ballet Lenox Avenue.

Leopold Stokowski called him “one of our greatest composers.” From distant Finland, Sibelius was quoted as saying, “He has something to say!” Nor did Still shrink from having something to say, as the titles of pieces like the choral cantata And They Lynched Him on a Tree, or the highly moving orchestral In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy suggest. He was very aware of who he was and whom he represented, defying the demeaning racial stereotypes of the time.

But even before his death, Still’s music faded almost out of sight and earshot. Once in a while we see a minor Still revival in concert, and then he is pushed back into the archives. Naxos’ pioneering cycle of all five symphonies remains the only one available.

The first major-label recording of Still’s `Afro-American Symphony’.

Still’s breakthrough piece, the Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American), was allegedly once the most-performed American symphony; the LA Phil first played it in 1940. But when conductor Thomas Wilkins revived it Feb. 16, it was hard to recall when it had last been done downtown. Perhaps overexposure or changes in fashion did it in, or perhaps stilted performances made it seem like ephemeral music from radio orchestras of the 1930s and 1940s.

When today’s LA Phil got its hands on this work, its full stature was revealed for the first time in my experience. The Phil nailed the feeling of the strict twelve-bar blues opening right away; the soulfulness of the second movement has never been expressed so movingly. The scherzo, with its sharply percussive banjo plunking, had uninhibited spirit, and even the finale, the weakest part of the work, was pulled together coherently. At times, I was reminded of the textures of Porgy and Bess, but Still got there first; the Symphony was completed in 1930, five years before Porgy’s debut.

It would be heartwarming to report that Still’s signature piece was the biggest hit of the evening, but in fact, there was flashier and no less worthy competition from two other figures who crossed back and forth over the fence separating entertainment from high art.

Aaron Diehl applied plenty of improv to `Rhapsody In Blue.’
(Jaime Kahn)

George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – a ubiquitous presence that needs no advocacy – was there, perhaps as a boon for the box office (the house looked full) yet also as an example of the Harlem Renaissance’s influence on white musicians. Rather than settle for just another run-through of the same old thing, Wilkins had jazz pianist Aaron Diehl on hand, who startled the audience with an improvised passage right from the start and continued to embellish the printed score with re-harmonizations, stride outbreaks, and assorted ad libs. Performers are doing this more and more with Rhapsody in Blue these days – and why not? Gershwin’s own world premiere performance at that famous Paul Whiteman concert in 1924 was an improv out of necessity, and this practice ties the piece ever closer to the rowdy spirit of the period jazz that inspired it.

There were two entries by Duke Ellington, whose ambitions ultimately transcended his own one-of-a-kind big band and spilled over into what used to be called “longhair” music. There are several versions of one of his most haunting tunes, “Come Sunday,” which was first heard in his first and biggest concert suite, Black, Brown and Beige. But this version was dominated by an uncredited narration – spoken by Charlotte Blake Alston – that obscured much of a sometimes syrupy symphonic arrangement by Maurice Peress. Fortunately, the great tune managed to shine through, performed first on solo cello and later by an alto saxophonist channeling the yearning tone of the Ellington band’s irreplaceable Johnny Hodges.

Thomas Wilkins got the LA Phil to swing Ellington.

The second Ellington piece, Harlem – which Duke later re-titled A Tone Parallel to Harlem – was originally commissioned in 1950 by none other than Arturo Toscanini, who never performed it. (You would have to have a better imagination than me to picture the 83-year-old Italian maestro bouncing to this piece’s beat!) This, too, exists in multiple versions, and the one Wilkins used was a terrific edition for jazz band and orchestra orchestrated by Peress and Luther Henderson. The LA Phil, augmented by several jazzers propelled by the great jazz drummer Peter Erskine, gave this jazz-drenched tour of the upper Manhattan neighborhood a dynamic reading, with the solo trumpet opening just nasty enough and the heavy orchestral forces just able to swing. The designated drum solo near the end turned into a splendid extended battle between Erskine on trap set and fellow Weather Report alumnus Alex Acuña on congas. Harlem got the biggest hand of the evening, and deserved it.

The following afternoon, Wilkins and the LA Phil explored some more-obscure corners of this repertoire with Gershwin’s wonderful, regrettably under-performed Second Rhapsody, Ellington’s Three Black Kings, a new piece by veteran composer Adolphus Hailstork with the punning title Still Holding On, and Still’s Symphony No. 4 (Autochthonous).

Now that they’ve broken the ice, let’s see if the LA Phil follows up on these concerts and integrates more music by black composers into its regular schedule. One weekend of specialty programming in deference to Black History Month, though welcome, is not enough.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.