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George 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
Recorded at the Grand Concert Hall, National Radio Company of Ukraine Radio, Kiev, June 1999
Naxos American Classics
8.559052 DDD [69:06]
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Known as the "Dean of Northwest Composers" George Frederick McKay, like a number of his contemporary compatriots, spent a lifetime in the multiple role of composer, educator and administrator. Born into a small farming community in Harrington, Washington, McKay's first musical experiences were gained from his Grandfather, a civil war veteran and fiddler, who would sing old American songs to his grandchildren and encouraged the young George to pursue music as a career. This he eventually did (after an aborted period of study for a business degree), subsequently becoming the first composition graduate of the Eastman School of Music, Rochester. He spent the bulk of his career as Professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, his pupils including such future luminaries as William Bolcom and John Cage.

McKay enjoyed great success as a composer during his lifetime, his symphonic works being championed by Stokowski, Beecham, Howard Hanson and Basil Cameron amongst others. Since his death in 1970 however his music appears to have suffered a period of neglect and whilst it is to be hoped that this particular disc puts his work back on the map it also provides possible evidence that the quality of his output varied somewhat in its consistency.

Without doubt, the strongest work presented here is the 1951 Symphony for Seattle. Written in response to a commission celebrating the centennial of the City of Seattle, the work demonstrates a depth and maturity of language that seems to belie the mere six years that separate it from the earlier From a Moonlit Ceremony. There is an economy of expression here, McKay's clean-limbed melodic writing sometimes bringing to mind Roy Harris, and showing a clear sense of structure and developmental cohesion. The central Andante teneramente e pastorale is gloriously beautiful although despite the conductor's booklet note to the contrary, I felt the distant influence of Copland on several occasions. My only regret here is the rather thin tone of the Ukrainian strings, highlighted at a number of points, particularly where the melody is underpinned by the sonorous sound of the brass. The final Allegro vigoroso e ritmico receives committed treatment with some fine brass sounds and a stirringly powerful conclusion. One is left with the impression that this impressive symphony deserves to be heard in the concert hall.

Harbor Narrative of 1934 was originally written for piano under the title Waterfront and subsequently orchestrated, still retaining a prominent part for the original solo instrument. In nine brief contrasting movements the work charts a journey by boat around the Puget Sound region and depicts vividly the varied sights and sounds experienced during the trip. Whilst the McKay of the symphony is discernible in the slower movements (the fourth, Chanty, is particularly affecting, floating a lovely oboe melody over a string accompaniment) there is considerable variety in the quicker sections including a jazzy 1920's style fox-trot in Voice of the City and driving machine like ostinati in Men and Machines. The final movement, Into the Distance, slowly takes the traveller into the mist as the boat disappears from view.

By contrast, From a Moonlit Ceremony (written eleven years after Harbor Narrative) is of far less interest being more lightweight in conception and ultimately failing to capture my imagination. Inspired by and freely using melodies which McKay noted down whilst observing a ceremony on the Muckleshoot Indian reservation the work was one of the composer's most performed compositions during the 1940's yet failed to attract the attention of a publisher. The version recorded here is the result of a revision in 1969, the year before the composer died.

This disc is well worthy of recommendation for the fine Seattle Symphony and whilst I am less convinced by some of the other music it is to the credit of Naxos that we have the opportunity to hear McKay's music once again. John McLaughlin Williams obtains creditable performances of all three works from his Ukrainian forces.

Christopher Thomas

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