Composers Ulysses Kay and William Dawson

Review: CD spotlights orchestral works of Dawson and Kay

Melinda Bargreen | 27 SEP 2020

Two 20th-century African-American composers of considerable merit are brought to the fore in this new release from Naxos’ “American Classics” label: William Levi Dawson (1899-1990) and Ulysses Simpson Kay (1917-1995). Both were important teachers who won many prestigious composition awards (Kay won the Prix de Rome twice) and were championed by esteemed conductors of major orchestras  (Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony was premiered by no less than Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, in 1934, and was broadcast nationwide over CBS radio).

William Dawson: “Negro Folk Symphony” Ulysses Kay, “Fantasy Variations,” “Umbrian Scene” ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Arthur Fagen conducting Naxos (American Classics) 8.559870 Release: 06/2020

William Dawson: “Negro Folk Symphony”; Ulysses Kay, “Fantasy Variations,” “Umbrian Scene.” ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Arthur Fagen conducting. Naxos (American Classics) 8.559870. Release: 06/2020

This is the third recording of Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, a work whose premiere was enthusiastically received by Olin Downes in The New York Times (Nov. 21, 1934): “This music has dramatic feeling, a racial sensuousness and directness of melodic speech, and a barbaric turbulence.” After its premiere performances, and following an extensive trip to Africa by the composer, Dawson revised the Negro Folk Symphony in 1952. The revision was first performed in 1964, and the current recording is its third.

Arthur Fagen (courtesy of Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University)

Arthur Fagen, conductor

The Negro Folk Symphony is very much a work of its original era. The symphony has three movements, each rich in melody and picturesque evocation, roving from one tune to another in each movement. Their titles reflect the three moods of the symphony: “The Bond of Africa,” “Hope in the Night,” and “O, Le’ Me Shine, Shine Like a Morning Star!” This new recording by conductor Arthur Fagen and the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra gives the score a propulsive finesse that illuminates its many twists and turns. As the music director of the Atlanta Opera for the past decade, and a good bit of conducting opera in Europe prior to that, Fagen’s understanding of drama in music is clear. The performance has a very cinematic feel: it sounds like the soundtrack to a film of its era, full of adventures and dangers and triumphs.

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For all its charm, the Negro Folk Symphony all but disappeared for decades. This energetic and detailed new recording may do much to bring this work to public attention, particularly at a time when social justice and racial fairness issues are at the forefront of America’s national attention.

Joining the Dawson work on this recording is a pair of orchestral pieces by Ulysses Simpson Kay. Born 18 years after Dawson, Kay was encouraged as a composer by William Grant Still, Howard Hanson, and Paul Hindemith. Now that’s quite a cheering squad. Kay became a professor of music and a prolific composer of five operas, 20 large orchestral works, and a variety of other scores including choral, chamber and film compositions.

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On this disc, Fagen and his orchestra perform two substantial Kay works, the Fantasy Variations and the Umbrian Scene, both dating from 1963 when Kay was in his mid-40s and in his “middle period” as a composer. Here we are in a different sonic world, where Kay’s style suggests neoclassical influences: like Schoenberg, Kay may have been breathing “air from other planets.” The Fantasy Variations turn the theme-and-variations form on its head by presenting the theme at the end of the piece, not at the beginning. The Umbrian Scene surprises expectations by evoking darker motifs and textures, not the sunny landscapes of Umbria, a region of central Italy. But the compositional style is deft and effective, and these colorful works – performed with style and verve — deserve to emerge from relative obscurity and into more of today’s concert programs. ■

Melinda Bargreen is a Seattle-based composer and music journalist who has been writing for the Seattle Times and other publications for four decades. Her 2015 book, Classical Seattle is published by University of Washington Press. Her 50 Years of Seattle Opera was published by Marquand Books in 2014.