William Grant Still – Summerland an important release

I blame the laziness of public radio station programmers. Because of them, William Grant Still was almost a one-hit-wonder. Need to program something classical for Black History Month? Still’s First Symphony is subtitled the “Afro-American.” Done and done.

Granted, recordings of Still’s works haven’t been plentiful. But there are other works available. Especially on this release from Naxos. It presents a variety of Still’s shorter compositions.

The earliest piece is the “American Suite” from 1918. The latest is the “Threnody: In Memory of Jean Sibelius,” composed in 1965.

Across that timespan Still shows his compositional range and depth. Some, such as “Can’t You Line ‘Em” are rooted in Black folk music traditions. Others, such as the 1946 “Pastorela” show Still’s mastery of contemporary classical techniques.

Violinist Zina Schiff met William Grant Still in her childhood. She has a strong connection — and empathy — for Still and his music. It informs her performances, which are ravishing.

Schiff’s daughter, Avaina Eisenberg conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in this recording. So there’s a strong connection — and empathy — between the soloist and the conductor!

My personal favorite is the Threnody. It’s a heartfelt tribute from one composer to another. And, as played here, simply beautiful.

This is an album of exception music, played exceptionally well. All nine of the works on this release are world premiere recordings. They add significantly to Still’s catalog. And to our understanding of this remarkable composer.

Highly recommended — and not just for the month of February.

William Grant Still: Summerland
Violin Suite; Pastorela; American Suite
Zina Schiff, violin
Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Avlana Eisenberg, conductor

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