Timely African-American Orchestral Works from Naxos

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 8

In these days of COVID-19 coupled to the Black Lives Matter protests and other signs of racial unrest in the United States and elsewhere, there’s something special about this release of William Dawson’s fine and too-seldom-heard Negro Folk Symphony, coupled with two challenging but intense and rewarding orchestral pieces by Ulysses Kay. The Dawson has been recorded a couple of times previously, first by Leopold Stokowski, who led the premiere and championed the work subsequently, and more recently by Neeme Järvi with the Detroit Symphony for Chandos. It’s a very worthy piece, intelligently structured and, more important, extremely expressive, especially in the eloquent central slow movement.

All three movements feature a “motto” (announced by the solo horn right at the start), and the folk music that Dawson quotes will be unfamiliar to most listeners–but the borrowed tunes aren’t so much the point as is the immediate feeling of happiness constantly threatened by the spirit of negation and oppression. It’s impossible to listen to this music without having current events in mind, and I can’t praise the work any more highly than to say that Dawson’s vision never coarsens or cheapens the message–it didn’t in his own day and it doesn’t in ours. The music has style. This ought to be a repertory piece, and not because of contingent circumstances. It’s just really good, sincere, affecting music.

The two orchestral works by Kay are thornier, more modern, and certainly more abstract. Kay’s use of twelve-note themes, chord clusters, and dissonant counterpoint give both of them a feeling of unease, leavened now and again by obvious tonal anchors and perhaps a few echoes of his mentor, William Grant Still. Indeed, if Still or even Gershwin had been modernist composers of the European school (both pieces here were composed in 1963), I can imagine this is what they might have sounded like. I found both works fascinating for just that reason.

Arthur Fagen’s performance of the Dawson symphony is slower and has more gravitas than Järvi’s, especially in the central slow movement (subtitled “Hope in the Night), and although it won’t erase memories of Stokowski’s commanding premiere recording, it’s a commendable effort by all concerned, well played and recorded. The two pieces by Kay sound very good, especially given the fact that this music could not possibly have been familiar to the players–or to anyone else for that matter. Attractively engineered and supplied with intelligent, informative booklet notes, it’s impossible to speak of this release objectively. There’s just too much going on “out there” that resonates with the spirit of the music on the disc. So let me conclude by saying that not only do Black Lives Matter, but Black Composers do too.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Dawson: Stokowski (MCA)

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