The composer William Bolcom is the pianist on all but one of the nine
works here. That one work is the Viola Suite. There the pianist is Sanford
Margolis. McKay used the modest word ‘Suite’ when I wonder how many
listeners would have blinked if he had called it ‘Sonata’. It is a soulful
and songful work with many emotional moments notable among these being
the haunting enchantment of the hollow whisper into which the second
movement (Cantante poetico) sinks. There are some moments that
have you thinking of Bloch but mostly the references were Vaughan Williams
and Bax with the emphasis being on RVW. McKay leaves us in no doubt
that he is a consummate melodist with the intellectual fibre to construct
hoarsely determined and attacking music. If you have time for the sonatas
by Arthur Benjamin, Rebecca Clarke and Arnold Bax you will not want
to miss out on this. The Viola Suite stands somewhat apart from the
other music on this CD.
Speaking of which we come to the piano solos and the songs. After the
gawky, jazzy populism of the Caricature Dance Suite with movements
sporting titles such as Swaggerbop and Snickertyskip,
William Bolcom plays a softly impressionistic set of innocent miniatures
carrying inflections from Ravel; altogether a rather regretful nostalgic
delight written during the years that bring Wordsworth's ‘philosophic
The years then peel back to 1924 with the Etude. This is redolent
of Cowell and Ornstein, with dashes of Stravinsky. An April Suite
is contemporary with the Caricature Dance Suite but takes
another path; gone is the zaniness and in its place there is a hybrid
Delian-Macdowell sentimentalism related to Mayerl and the Australians
of the same era (e.g. Hutchens, Hill, Greville Cooke, Farjeon, Robbins)
some of whose solo piano pieces have been anthologised by the Australian
company Artworks. The Second Dance Suite has game dissonances,
jazzy collisions and material that might well have been influenced by
Bartók. In the penultimate movement Calisthenics à
la Hollywood we are back to the dreamy haze of the April Suite.
Dancing in a Dream (in which Bolcom is joined by Logan Skelton)
will instantly ring bells of easy sympathy with admirers of Zez Confrey
and Billy Mayerl.
Such a pity we could not have had all five of the songs. In the three
left to us Joan Morris, a long practised, intelligent and affecting
singer in this genre, sings well though there is a slight, perhaps touching,
tremor in her voice. The songs are consummately constructed, without
great artifice. They reach out directly as do Copland's Old American
Songs. Besides having a hymn-like quality the single song Every
Flower is in much the same mould as the Five Songs.
This is all highly attractive music.
A NOTE FROM THE G F MCKAY ESTATE
McKay is a historic West Coast American composer,
and full information can be found at www.georgefrederickmckaymusic.com
Our ancestry traces back to Great Britain; with
the first McKay in America being an English Army Officer who fought
with Burgoyne's outfit at Bennington and escaped back to Canada with
the loyalists and Canadian troops he commanded. Captain Samuel McKay
had been an advance scout for the campaign, and had been captured in
previous actions (there is correspondence between him and George Washington
in the Library of Congress here in the States, in regard to McKay's
petition to be exchanged for an American prisoner). He later escaped
and made it back to British lines.
Samuel was married to a noble French Colonial
lady and his son became a French professor at Williams College in New
York State. Hence the McKays were launched into the American scene.
This particular recording has been a long time
in the process of production, actually starting before the McKay Orchestral
CD, which has been very successful and has been played on wonderful
radio stations here in the US and other countries. CBC in Toronto has
done quite a few prime-time segments, and the Native American themes
contained in the orchestra works have been heard on the same programs
with Mozart and Beethoven, which is quite a revolutionary development.
As I was saying, it took quite a long time to assemble the pieces done
by William Bolcom because of his heavy schedule - he was writing and
producing the opera A View From the Bridge which was premiered
by the Chicago Lyric Opera, and will now have a run at the Met this
year; he is head of the Music School at the University of Michigan,
he and his wife Joan Morris do 30 concert dates per year, and he is
always composing new works regularly performed by major orchestras.
Bolcom first studied composition with my father
(G F McKay) at the University of Washington at a very young age, so
this recording represents many things in terms of the progression of
musical expression from the Northwest corner of America - along with
being an important link between serious music and Jazz Age themes coming
out of the West Coast environment.
There is some music contained in the recording
bordering on the experimental, if viewed in the historical context in
which it was composed, and Bolcom expressed to me in phone conversations
that Dance Suite No. 2 was a fairly difficult piece to pull off as a
pianist. My father would have enjoyed every minute of this experience,
since he was very happy with everything he composed and was enamored
of participatory musicianship, both in his teaching methods and in the
professional arena, where he both conducted symphony orchestras, and
was a professional player early in his life (violin and viola).
We have 70 orchestral pieces yet to record, so
the McKay story has a long way to go, no to mention the cantatas, ballet
music and a large number of organ works and several string quartets
and many great band pieces.
George Frederick McKay Estate
I was reading through your review, and came
across a mention of Bartok in relation to George Frederick McKay, and
so goes this tale:
I was talking during a family gathering to Gerald
Kechley, a fine University of Washington composer and professor and
a student of McKay's who was a first-hand witness to McKay presenting
Bartok at a concert-lecture in Seattle in the early 1940's---------the
University of Washington, perhaps spurred on by McKay, had sought to
offer a faculty position to Bartok, which he never took because of his
terminal cancer-------------at any rate McKay being his usual jovial
self asked Bartok "are you going to continue composing revolutionary
music? Bartok, says Kechley, replied "My music is not revolutionary,
it is evolutionary!" This story was not passed down in our family,
so it was amusing to hear this during the 1990's when most people in
Seattle had forgotten that Bartok had been here, or even that he knew
where the place was.
There was a similar story about a McKay-Beecham
encounter that was amusing but a little less stuffy, with the result
that the McKay family made a pleasant acquaintance with Sir Thomas during
his stay in Seattle, including a performance of an original modern work
by George Frederick McKay with the Seattle Symphony. I discovered through
research that Beecham had come to the University of Washington and conducted
the student orchestra there as a community relations trip, to the delight
of everyone involved.
Oh, and we did listen to a lot of Bartok 33's
when I was growing up, so perhaps the comment was brotherly after all,
and my Dad loved the modern and open themes in Bartok's works.
Hope this is not too trying, but these are kind
of poignant stories that make up the fabric of the real world.
SEE ALSO Chris Thomas’s review of:-
Frederick McKAY (1899-1970) From A Moonlit Ceremony (1945)
Harbor Narrative (1934) Evocation Symphony "Symphony for Seattle"
(1951) National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine - John McLaughlin Williams
Naxos American Classics 8.559052 DDD [69:06]