On Friday, May 27th Naxos records released the latest in their American Classics Series of recordings. Their latest CD “Summerland” features the music of a composer who is very often described as the Dean of African American composers; William Grant Still.
“Summerland” features Zina Schiff on violin and her daughter, the renowned conductor Avlana Eisenberg conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
Multi Award winning Violinist Zina Schiff is a protégé of Jasha Heifetz, and has really done it all. She has performed solo recitals and given masterclasses all over the world. Schiff has also recorded 16 full length albums and has done studio session work for film scores as back up recording sessions with prominent artists, most notably Chet Atkins and Johnny Cash
Avlana Eisenberg is a Fulbright Scholarship winner and has performed at various festivals including Aspen and the Eastern Music Festival. She is currently the Music Director of the Boston Chamber Symphony and regularly guest conducts orchestras all over the world.
William Grant Still was born in Mississippi in 1895 and showed a keen interest in music early on. His mother wanted him to be a medical doctor, so he began studying at Wilberforce University to become a doctor. The allure of music was too great however, and Still dropped out of Wilberforce University to study at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he became a student of Edgar Varese, and George Whitefield Chadwick.
His career flourished and eventually he would become the first African-American composer to conduct his own works with a major symphony orchestra. In 1936 he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a concert made up of his own compositions. Still’s Symphony no 1 the “Afro-American Symphony” would go on to be one of the most performed American Symphonies in the first half of the twentieth century.
Violinist Zina Schiff met William Grant Still when she was very young. “He was a regular visitor at the Peter Maremblum Junior Symphony orchestra that I played in; in California…I was six when I got into the Orchestra, and I had seen him there very frequently. My impressions were of a really kind, gentle man who loved children, and later on I found that that was very true,” says Schiff.
The music of William Grant Still has been somewhat of a musical constant in Schiff’s solo performances. As Schiff explains, “He loved and breathed melody and for a violinist, what can ask for more than that! In the early nineties the producer Dana Paul Perna sent me six works of William Grant Still, and I immediately fell in love with them…I recorded them, and that album came out in 1997. I continue performing him…I really play his music all over the place. I’ve played it Jerusalem, I’ve played him in Taiwan…and everywhere in between; and finally, finally we have the opportunity to delve into the works with orchestra. ”
The CD “Summerland” features all world premiere recordings of Still’s music. Many of the orchestral scores arriving to conductor Avlana Eisenberg in the original autograph manuscript form. “Dana (Paul Perna) had contact with Still’s estate. All of these pieces on this CD were there in the original manuscript. Dana had some ideas and started sending music my way, and every single piece he sent, I thought this is perfect, and that created the album.”
Summerland features a wide cross section of Still’s output. There is his earliest composition, “American Suite,” on the CD as well as music from later on in his career, such as the very expressive and nature inspired “Threnody: In Memory of Jean Sibelius.” All of the amazing music put on record for the first time ever.
This is a remarkable disc for several reasons, the music is very beautifully expressive, and it is music that has been overlooked for far too long. Zina Schiff’s violin playing is exquisite, while being accompanied by the outstanding Royal Scottish National Orchestra. The RSNO under the baton of Avlana Eisenberg plays the purely orchestral pieces of as if they have been playing Still’s music for decades. The Orchestra shows a very clear understanding of what Still is trying to get across is the music on these performances, and the playing is quite simply perfect!
Eisenberg sums it up best, “He is such a master at writing melody, and I think allowing the melody to speak but also to be accompanied by some harmonies that are refreshingly new and different. It’s incredibly exciting that these pieces are now on a commercial recording. I’m thrilled and feel so privileged to be part of this project. It’s also sobering to think that this is not actually new music. These pieces were composed generations ago…it’s a reminder that this is a long time coming, and hopefully a motivation that this is just the beginning.”
With this CD “Summerland” the music of William Grant Still is amazingly showcased! Here’s too many more concert performances of his music, thanks to this wonderful CD!