Over the past year, it is almost impossible to locate a classical music ensemble—either amateur and professional—that has been unaffected by significant changes in repertoire programming. A cursory glance through upcoming season brochures of nearly all major orchestras will attest to a major shift in artistic planning, as well as newfound inspiration to provide a central voice for underplayed and underrepresented BIPOC composers of today and of the past.
Truth be told, well before the seismic events last summer that led to this re-evaluation, art of various types was plagued with an overly acute focus on the “greats.” Art museums around the country mainly highlighted the few household names of painters and sculptors, symphony orchestras mostly performed the work of around ten to twenty major composers, and theNew York Times bestseller lists are a mere sliver of recognized authors, in stark comparison to the thousands of decent-to-excellent books that are being written annually. Even within the realm of popular music, it is difficult to hear anything on the radio other than a few key artists of various genres repeatedly, all day, excluding many worthy artists. While we often naturally narrow our focus on the summits of Mt. Everest and Mt. Kilimanjaro, a mountain is the sum of far more than the apex.
In this line of reasoning, the work that the Northwest Orchestra Consortium, led by Dr. Christopher T.F. Hanson, has done to highlight Serenade (1957) for orchestra by William Grant Still (1895-1978), must be fully commended and appreciated.
While Still is certainly not an unknown name in classical music (most music history books write a decent amount on the historical importance of his achievements as the first major Black American classical composer) it is also a parallel truth that his music has not been programmed as often as it could—or should—be. It is rather insufficient to mention a composer in various history books, and not follow through with regular performances of their works. Still’s Serenade is truly exquisite. It is characterized by both a neo-Romantic aesthetic, and a deft use of contemporary folk music that fully complements his lush harmonic landscape. One can hear echoes of the middle section from Florence Price’s Piano Concerto, the slow movement of George Gershwin’s Concerto in F, fused with the backdrop of popular ballads from the 1950s: “Earth Angel,” “I only have eyes for you,” and “You send me” all immediately come to mind. The piece is in the key of A Major, save the middle section in parallel minor that contrasts in tempo and texture. Unlike many other ballads and slow movements, Still ends the piece in a rousing fortissimo of ecstatic joy, perhaps hinting that the unnamed protagonist was successful in said Serenade in the end.
The Northwest Orchestra Consortium, made up of players from several institutions throughout the Pacific Northwest, published their virtual rendition of Serenade in January 2021. Considering that I often fail to synchronize my own two hands in a live performance, their success in linking all the performers’ audio is impressive. The upper strings emphasize passionate lyrical lines throughout, fulfilling Still’s indication that these melodies are to be played “ardently.” The piano accompaniment, though mostly background texture, nevertheless provided a pleasant timbral contrast from the strings’ sonorities. Minor intonation issues aside, the presentation of the work was both enjoyable and showcased the talent evident from each of these institutions. The only issues that stuck out to me were overly uniform dynamics and homophonic imbalance- both of which could be a result of the virtual medium in which the piece was recorded. I found myself at times struggling to the principal melodies, and many softer sections depicted in the score remained mezzo-forte or above. Aside from these trivial observations, the recording is an admirable presentation of this gorgeous work, and is a version for strings and piano that should be taken up by ensembles of various abilities throughout the United States.
The opening introduction provided intriguing biographical and contextual information for the online listener, especially for those who had not yet learned of Still’s profoundly influential impact on Black American classical music. I myself learned a great deal from all of the contributors. Yet it contained some sentiments that I found to be somewhat misguided or superfluous. Dr. Hanson states that “Unlike other virtual performances you may have seen, this video is designed to render visible the work of the composer over the performers.” While the rapid increase in performances of BIPOC composers is absolutely welcome and long overdue in classical music, this sentence felt just a bit heavy-handed to me, and briefly distracted from the important and meaningful message that Dr. Hanson and the Consortium delivered to its audience. I can’t think of a performance where I would deem it necessary to clearly state to an audience which portion of the binary relationship between composer and performer should be prioritized; to me, the beautiful music speaks for itself, and this assertion ironically causes the listeners to concentrate on something other than the composer’s beautiful music, the talented students who are producing it, and the magic of this interplay. As a concert pianist who regularly plays both concert standards and underrepresented works, I have always felt that the relationship between composers and performers is intimately symbiotic, and one that is both synergistic and equal—not meant to be hierarchical. This opinion notwithstanding, I felt that the Northwest Orchestra Consortium did a marvelous job of highlighting William Grant Still’s work to their online audience, and I hope to hear much more from them in the future.
As a brief postscript to this new cultural re-evaluation in promoting underrepresented composers, let us not forget the music of other Black American composers like George Walker (1922-2018), whose superb craft is easily on par with any other 20th century composer- and whose music is sadly not being performed often. The story of American classical music is one of constant expansion and evolution, and in recent years it is most certainly for the better. Furthermore, the terms diversity and inclusion mean precisely what they declare, so it is my sincere hope that ensembles around the United States continue to expand their repertoire, including composers from communities that are currently not garnering as much national attention as they should. The past year has uncovered an absolute treasure trove of forgotten masterpieces by Black American composers, but why stop there? American classical music would be further enriched with the addition of Native American, Latin and South American, Arab American, Indian American, Jewish American, and Asian American composers, if only we decide as a nation to look for them.
Audiences love what they know, and want to hear what they know and love time and again. Thus, by frequently performing William Grant Still’s Serenade, as well as many other diverse compositions over the coming years, these pieces can become a deeper and more permanent part of the American classical heritage for generations to come. I cannot wait to hear them all in concert, right around the corner.