Danzas de Panama (1953), William Grant Still

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Danzas de Panama (1953), William Grant Still
Year of Composition: 1953    
Stephen Rosenthal
I. Tamborito
II. Mejorana y Socavon
III. Punto
IV. Cumbia y Congo


Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY)
Saturday, February 8, 1997
Amherst Saxophone Quartet strings together a pleasant mix
Thomas Putnam

The Amherst Saxophone Quartet was in disguise for part of this program, which mixed saxophone quartet pieces and string quartet pieces with mixed results.

The saxophonists had on their slippers, but not their powdered wigs, for their performance of a Mozart String Quartet (K. 590). Candlelight would have been appropriate and made more chilling the moans of disapproving ghosts of the Budapest String Quartet.

This began the program as the grand statement of classical acceptance. We do belong. Years have passed without their daring to cross the border, but now the sax players have their Classic Visa, and you can be sure it's a card.

Actually the players in the last movement made a case for the misplacement of Mozart in the 18th Century. The allegro had a fine open-throated verve and a natural richness of color that was very satisfying, neither timid nor apologetic. The ghosts were quiet.

What followed was Chan Ka Nin's Saxophone Quartet (1989), an ASQ prize winner and a richly various piece. Its fleet, contesting energies suggested scenes of theater or dance, with blue lighting. What was odd (this comes from not knowing when a disguise is on and when it is off) was the feeling that Chan's music would sound wonderful played by instruments other than saxophones.

What a score for a ballet this would be - a kind of Asian Spring, for the suggestion of the freshness and openness of Copland is not too distant. A string orchestra, for example, with some use of the technique of col legno, hitting the strings with the wood of the bows; and percussion, and contrabassoon definitely.

Another saxophone quartet was Jonathan Golove's "Closely Related Fungi" (1996), which the composer introduced and applauded. Nevermind the title unless you are obsessed with programmatic aids. It had only the damaging effect of allowing one of the players to put down the sax and take up the lectern to deliver a series of exclamations on the subject of mushrooms.

Much more persuasive was the, well, persuasion of Golove's music, the French softness and patience that made the piece such a lovely throwback. Here we are at one turn of the century and still in arm's reach of the last turn of the century. Time seems very long at the end of a century, perhaps.

Golove said that while writing the piece, he was fathoming Charlie Parker, the bop saxophonist, but we don't really hear that kind of saxophone here, for this is not a convoluted and chromatic music. Ellington saxes, perhaps, more sweet than acid. Also, Golove's rhythms are not really fascinating, that is, the piece gets along very well without sharply cut figures. And it was quite nice to hear this kind of tonal persuasion.

We truly were treated to tonal persuasion and rhythmic flash in the ASQ's performance of Jean Rivier's "Grave et Presto." Apparently this piece has been in the quartet's repertory from the start, and no wonder. Here is languorous tone and quickly painted urban bustle. (The ghosts of the Budapest are stirring, they are envious.) The performance was nearly perfectly delicate (this was no Classicism in Slippers), and at the end a marvel of here-we-go-don't-look-back ensemble flash.

To show that a generalization is a dangerous thing, there was a string quartet transcription that worked famously. Sometimes to borrow is better. William Grant Still's "Danzas de Panama" may sound sultry played by strings; it certainly sounds great played by saxes. These are colorful dances, with fascinating rhythms, and if you can't dance, that's OK. ASQ has the splashy choreography, and they're wearing shoes that fit.

Quartet in F Major, K. 590, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Saxophone Quartet, Chan Ka Nin
Closely Related Fungi (1996), Jonathan Golove
Grave et Presto, Jean Rivier
Danzas de Panama (1953), William Grant Still
Amherst Saxophone Quartet strings together a pleasant mix

Composer Biography

1895 — 1978

Long known as the dean of African American composers, WILLIAM GRANT STILL was born May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi to musician parents of African-American, Native American, Spanish, Irish and Scotch heritage. Still received a B.s. degree from Wilberforce University, and then studied at Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Some of the legends he worked with include Paul Whiteman, Artie Shaw, W.e. Handy, Eubie Blake and Sophie Tucker. Later study included a period at the New England Conservatory of Music and an individual scholarship with the ultra-modern composer Edgard Varese.

[From Wikipedia]
William Grant Still (May 11, 1895 - December 3, 1978) was an African-American classical composer who wrote more than 150 compositions. He was the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony (his first symphony) performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television. He is often referred to as "the Dean" of African-American composers.
William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi. He was the son of two teachers, Carrie Lena Fambro Still (1872–1927) and William Grant Still (1871–1895), who was also a partner in a grocery store and performed as a local bandleader. His father William Grant Still Sr. died when his infant son was 3 months old.
Carrie Lena Fambro Still took her boy to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she taught high school English for 33 years. She met and married Charles B. Shepperson, who nurtured his stepson William's musical interests by taking him to operettas and buying Red Seal recordings of classical music, which the boy greatly enjoyed. The two attended a number of performances by musicians on tour. Still grew up in Little Rock, and started violin lessons at age 15. He taught himself to play the clarinet, saxophone, oboe, double bass, cello and viola, and showed a great interest in music. His maternal grandmother sang African-American spirituals to him. At age 16 he graduated from M. W. Gibbs High School in Little Rock.
His mother wanted him to go to medical school, so Still pursued a Bachelor of Science degree program at Wilberforce University, a historically black college in Ohio. Still became a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. He conducted the university band, learned to play various instruments, and started to compose and to do orchestrations.
Still was awarded scholarships to study at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music with Friedrich Lehmann and with George Whitefield Chadwick at the New England Conservatory. He also studied with the modern composer Edgard Varèse.
In 1918, according to biographers George Sewell and Margaret L. Dwight, Still enlisted in the United States Navy and served in World War I.
Still initially composed in the modernist style, but he later combined elements of his African-American musical heritage with traditional European classical forms to form a unique style. In 1931 his Symphony No. 1 was performed by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Howard Hanson, making him the first African-American composer to have his work performed by a major orchestra. It is considered the "crowning achievement of his self-consciously 'racial' period".[1] In 1936, Still conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra as the first African-American to conduct a major American orchestra.
In 1949 his opera Troubled Island, about Jean Jacques Dessalines and Haiti, was performed by the New York City Opera, the first opera by an African-American to be performed by a major company. In 1955 he conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra and became the first African-American to conduct a major orchestra in the Deep South. Still's works were performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the BBC Orchestra. He was the first African American to have an opera performed on national United States television. Additionally, he was the recording manager of the Black Swan Phonograph Company.
Between 1919 and 1921, Still worked as an arranger for W.C. Handy's band and later played in the pit orchestra for Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake's musical Shuffle Along. Later in the twenties, he served as the arranger of Yamekraw, a "Negro Rhapsody" composed by the noted Harlem Stride pianist, James P. Johnson.
In the 1930s Still worked as an arranger of popular music, writing for Willard Robison's Deep River Hour, and Paul Whiteman's Old Gold Show, both popular NBC Radio broadcasts.
Still eventually moved to Los Angeles, California, where he arranged music for films. These included Pennies from Heaven (the 1936 film starring Bing Crosby and Madge Evans) and Lost Horizon (the 1937 film starring Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt and Sam Jaffe). For Lost Horizon, he arranged the music of Dimitri Tiomkin. Still was also hired to arrange the music for the film Stormy Weather, but left the assignment after a few weeks due to artistic disagreements.

Composition Notes

The score for Danzas de Panama contains a forward, excerpted here: "There is a distinct unity and a touch of Caribbean color in the four dances. The first and last are Negro in origin, probably brought by the first slaves imported into Panama, while the second and third are of Spanish-Indian derivation."