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Expectations: Longwood Dashes, Deveau Fulfills


William Grant Still
William Grant Still

The Longwood Symphony squared off with George Gershwin’s Girl Crazy Suite and William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 2 before tackling Beethoven’s “Emperor.” After a fairly good-sized crowd on Saturday night at Jordan Hall showered support on the doctors’ music-making, even applauding between movements of the Still, David Deveau rerouted the nevertheless, not-so-ready-for-the-public journey through the two Americans’ works by charting the epic German concerto’s piano virtuosity with readiness and confidence.

Girl Crazy just did not swing or swoon or satisfy. The rhythms were square, even in the stomper “I Got Rhythm.” Shouldn’t “Embraceable You” have been an earnest invitation?  Instead, for Longwood, the climbing phrases felt altogether routine. Leroy Anderson’s arrangement of the suite of four songs should have had the house swaying and rocking.

Still’s Symphony No. 2, “Song of a New Race,” fared somewhat better; at times Longwood was able to catch hold of the composer’s voice with its subtle inflections. Perhaps my expectations ran too high, I had so much been looking forward to hearing this live performance, it being one of the rarest of opportunities for all of Boston, if not far afield. I had recalled past experiences with Longwood, such as their performance of Daphnis and Chloe a few years ago, that were technically tremendous and musically commanding.

After the slow unremarkably played opening movement, Longwood strings dug into the theme of the second movement rendering it as the composer directed, “slowly with deep expression.” Concertmaster Anna Katherine Barnett-Hart touched heartstrings in her solo, so too did oboist Michael Barnett, who was on the same expressive page. The “moderately fast” third movement danced elegantly and brightly most of the time. With the flute leading the way, the woodwinds especially enunciated the gently nuanced, fetching blues lines of Still.

Still’s second symphony cannot even suggest brashness, the brass section, though, did not see it that way. An even keel underpinning the work, implicit in Still’s composition, was by no means entirely maintained. Rather, conductor Ronald Feldman’s decisions leaned toward an outspoken Still. The composer’s inimitable restraint, warmth, loveliness and unassuming mien encountered some overplaying—as well as underplaying, where tone shading was next to absent.

“Brief” remarks from scholar and granddaughter of William Grant Still, Celeste Headlee, ran a bit long. Surprisingly, to put it mildly, she advised that we listen to her grandfather’s music as “not black music.” What did she mean by this? She provided no real evidence supporting her unexpected, if not unsettling, words. She did, however, refer to his Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American.” And it can also be noted that abundant sources to this day refer to Still as “the Dean” of African-American composers.

DAvid Deveau (Susan Wilson photo)
David Deveau (Susan Wilson photo)

Another anomaly: in a recent BMInt article [here] Feldman related he “was fascinated to read about the controversy involving the origin of George Gershwin’s most famous tune ‘I Got Rhythm.’ I discovered much to my surprise that there is substantial evidence attributing the tune to WGS. I decided to pair Gershwin’s medley “Girl Crazy”, which contains the tune, “IGR” with the second symphony to draw attention to this very interesting controversy.” This, too, was baffling as there was no mention of such either during the concert or in the edifying notes on the program by Steven Ledbetter.

For Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, “Emperor,” enter pianist David Deveau to set a new, true tenor for the evening. His sureness of touch measured from the introductory keyboard-length arpeggios and high trilling to the out-and-out allure of the ornately textured passagework throughout the interior Adagio un poco mosso. That ninth note of the Rondo theme burst again and again firework-like under his fingers propelling the piano and orchestra dialogue to a fulfilling close.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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  1. There was a good reason, or perhaps two good reasons, why my program note did not mention the supposed debate about the composition of “I Got Rhythm” in my note for William Grant Still’s second symphony. First, when I originally planned to write the note, the Gershwin was not on the program. When it was added later, it didn’t occur to me to bring it into the discussion because the Still piece in which one may be pleased to hear “I Got Rhythm” is his first symphony, the “Afro-American Symphony,” so there was no real connection of that sort between the two pieces on the program.

    Moreover, I’ve never found it necessary to exercise myself over the question of whether one compose cribbed from the other. Both Still and Gershwin had plenty of musical inventiveness and could have reached similar themes quite by happenstance. Both works were composed in 1930, and it is unclear whether either composer would have heard the other’s before completing his own. On the other hand, Still apparently invented the tune as a counter-melody improvised while he was playing oboe in the pit band for Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s “Shuffle Along,” the first significant Black show in a Broadway theater in the 1920s–and Gershwin apparently loved the show and went to hear it on numerous occasions. I’ve heard this said (about both Still and Gershwin), but have never seen any documentation for it, so I won’t make claims about it.

    I personally enjoyed the comments by Still’s granddaughter Celeste Headlee a great deal, and I didn’t find them at all too long, particularly since a great many people came up to her at intermission and said how glad they were to learn something about a composer whom they had not known at all before that concert. At the conductor’s invitation, she had spoken to the orchestra at the morning’s dress rehearsal with what she intended to give as brief remarks, and she was urged to say a little more.

    As for her urging listeners to consider Still’s work as “not black music,” I’m sure she meant “not as JUST black music.” That is also why she said at the beginning of her remarks that she was glad that the Longwood performance was taking place in March and not in “Black history month,” February, where such pieces are often pigeon-holed. In fact, Still was genetically a mixture of many racial and ethnic groups and, though he was proud of his Black heritage and happy to further it in his music, he also wrote music that evoked Mexican and other traditions in which he shared.

    Comment by Steven Ledbetter — March 21, 2014 at 10:02 pm

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