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Classical - Released December 6, 2011 | Naxos

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Composer William Grant Still is almost invariably represented on orchestral programs by his Symphony No. 1 ("Afro-American"), but in his day he was championed by Stokowski and Rodzinski among others, and heard his works played by major symphony orchestras. The Fort Smith Symphony in Arkansas under conductor John Jeter has undertaken a complete cycle of Still's orchestral music, and the first thing to be pointed out about it is that this regional small-city ensemble sounds startlingly good. Still's subtle orchestration requires clean string and wind sections, and the Fort Smith players suggest an orchestra from a much bigger city. If there's fault to be found it's in the rather empty acoustic of Fort Smith's Best Corporation Performing Arts Center. But check out the gorgeous wind writing in the slow movements of both the Symphony No. 2 in G minor ("Song of a New Race") and Symphony No. 3 ("The Sunday Symphony"), where Still lightly inflects impressionist orchestral writing in an African-American direction. The wind section, and Jeter's control over them, is impressive here. What's attractive in both symphonies is Still's subtle incorporation of African-American idioms, which may creep in as a movement develops as a sort of comment or byway. The Symphony No. 1 is more obviously "African," but these later works have a unique lyrical charm. The opening Wood Notes, which here receives its world premiere, is the only clinker; it's heavily derivative of Dvorák, minus the good tunes. Otherwise this is a strong traversal of some neglected music and an album that, for all the hand-wringing about the state of classical music in the U.S., shows that it's alive and well in a small Southern city. © TiVo
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Classical - Released January 11, 2019 | Naxos

Hi-Res Booklet
Lists of American music "firsts" often include Florence B. Price's 1933 Symphony No. 1 in E minor, which became the first symphony by an African American woman performed by a major American orchestra. Even that work is not so common these days. With echoes of Dvorák and William Grant Still, the work features a jovial "Juba Dance" in place of a scherzo. More interesting is the first movement, where African American influences -- syncopations, pentatonic scales -- seem to be struggling over the course of the substantial first movement to break out from the rather weighty material. But the highlight of this release from the Fort Smith Symphony of Arkansas and its conductor, John Jeter, is Price's Symphony No. 4 in D minor, composed in 1945 and here receiving its recorded world premiere. Despite the similar four-movement layout, with a juba dance in the same spot, it's a more complex work than its predecessor in every way, and its rediscovery is a major event. Sample the first movement with its subtle treatment of the spiritual "Wade in the Water." The slow movement makes reference to that of Dvorák's Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 ("From the New World") and is all the more impressive for making an entirely distinct impression despite the similarities. The Fort Smith Symphony, from Price's home state (she and her husband fled after a horrifying lynching episode), delivers idiomatic performances, and the Symphony No. 4 finale is especially exciting. Highly recommended. © TiVo
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Classical - Released March 1, 2005 | Naxos

Booklet
African-American composer William Grant Still's signature piece, Symphony No. 1 "Afro-American" is the only one of his many works that has seldom needed a recording. As such, it is a natural fit for Still's entry in the Naxos American Classics series. However, Naxos has gone the extra mile for Still, including a key work never heard on record before, his symphonic poem Africa written between 1924 and 1930. Despite a widespread performance history gained in the wake of a successful 1931 launch by the redoubtable Howard Hanson and the Rochester Symphony, Africa was never published and ultimately withdrawn from circulation. It is hard to imagine why, as Africa is musically so very accomplished and attractive. It does spring from an idealized view of Africa common to African-Americans of the day, as expressed in the movement titles: "Land of Peace," "Land of Romance," and "Land of Superstition." It wasn't until Baptist missionaries traveled to Africa that the continent's other sides became apparent -- a land of unending inter-tribal warfare, starvation, and poverty. Given the program of this symphonic poem, which is close to being a symphony, Still's music is appropriately lush, dreamy, and owes something to the work of Ferde Grofé. By comparison, the "Afro-American" is drawn from a more Dvorákian part of Still's vocation. Also included is the brief In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy, dating from 1943 and written in Still's fully mature style -- harmonically rich, unique in orchestration, and fundamentally recognizable as the work of Still. It runs a bit long for its program, but is a revelation and, as with Africa, has never before been recorded. John Jeter and the Fort Smith Symphony deserve commendation for doing such an excellent job here. The acoustics at the Arkansas Best Corporation Performing Center in Fort Smith are excellent for recording, and Still's music is captured in a sound that neither swallows it nor serves it up too dryly. William Grant Still: Afro-American Symphony is both an excellent introduction to the work of a major, yet under-recognized American composer and a testament to the excellence of some of America's local community orchestras. Let us hope that Naxos will once again employ the Fort Smith Symphony in the significant amount of William Grant Still's orchestral music that remains to be unearthed and heard. © TiVo
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Classical - Released October 27, 2009 | Naxos

Booklet
The three works on this disc, the Fourth and Fifth symphonies and Poem for Orchestra by American composer William Grant Still, are well-crafted and wholeheartedly sincere. Still manifestly means everything he says, and clearly knows how to say it, with strong conviction and complete confidence. His themes are vigorous or sprightly, his harmonies voluptuous or spiky, and his rhythms propulsive or sultry, while his developments are cogent and his forms never longer than they need to be. But nothing Still has to say is particularly inventive or interesting. His themes are too simple, his harmonies too conventional, his rhythms too foursquare, and his structures too textbook. One listens attentively at first, but as Still makes more moves that can be heard coming, and builds to more climaxes that can be predicted well before they arrive, one's attention wanders and finally fades. The Fort Smith Symphony and conductor John Jeter deliver well-crafted and wholeheartedly sincere accounts of Still's works. The Arkansas orchestra is up to the works' technical and emotional demands, and Jeter does all that can reasonably be expected of a conductor. But these qualities cannot transform the dross of Still's music into gold, and the results are dutiful but regrettably dull. Naxos' digital sound is clean enough, but hollow and somewhat two-dimensional. © TiVo