> McKay suites [RB]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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George Frederick McKAY (1899-1970)
Caricature Dance Suite (1924)
From My Tahoe Window - Summer Moods and Patterns
Americanistic Etude (1924)
An April Suite (1924)
Dance Suite No. 2 (1938)
Dancing in a Dream (1945)
Excerpts from Five Songs for Soprano (1964)
Every Flower That Ever Grew (1969)
Suite for Viola and Piano (1948)
William Logan, Logan Skelton, Sanford Margolis (piano)
Joan Morris (mezzo-soprano)
Mahoko Eguchi (viola)
rec July 1999-Feb 2001, The Brookwood Studio, Ann Arbour, MI, USA DDD


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 mind’.

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.

Rob Barnett



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.

Fred McKay
George Frederick McKay Estate
Edmonds, WA


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.


Fred McKay

SEE ALSO Chris Thomas’s review of:-

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 Naxos American Classics 8.559052 DDD [69:06]

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