This disc has to be one of the finest in an already
illustrious American Classics series from Naxos. The label's previous
McKay disc (8.559052), featuring his orchestral works, was excellent
but this chamber anthology, built around the performing talents
of composer-pianist William Bolcom and his singer wife Joan Morris,
is truly outstanding. Despite certain reservations about the sound,
which is a little cavernous on some tracks, I cannot recommend
this highly enough. It features an ideally balanced blend of up-tempo
jazz-influenced pieces with more reflective folk-like works and
some wonderfully simple but simply wonderful songs.
The opening Caricature Dance Suite is
very much as you might imagine, being influenced by ragtime and
other popular forms of 1920s America. Only the closing Burlesque
March diverts, and then only slightly, from this theme, also
existing in a version for band. The late suite From My Tahoe
Window comes as a complete contrast and shows McKay, probably
the composer of the Pacific North-West, as nature poet
par-excellence. The booklet notes mention Bill Evans but
I also thought of an American Ravel, semi-improvised by Keith
Jarrett, as I listened to the tuneful but haunting "folk-jazz"
intimated by Bolcom's superb reading. These miniatures say so
much more than their short duration may suggest and would appeal
to any piano lover who appreciates melody but with a relatively
modern, spare sound - this side of McKay's muse seldom lends itself
to the virtuosic or extrovert. The earlier April Suite
has a great deal in common with Tahoe, although with its
influences, both Romantic and French impressionist, worn more
transparently on its sleeve. To the Blue Eyed Days of Spring
is a typical title and, as elsewhere on this CD, the music fits
it perfectly. Gorgeous, totally listenable yet recognisably 20th
century in its economy of means.
The Americanistic Etude and Dance Suite
No. 2 are more upbeat and in keeping with the syncopated rhythms
so popular in the 1920s and 1930s when the works were composed.
After the two-piano Fred Astaire(!) "tribute" Dancing in a
Dream, the next great music arrives with a selection of song
settings, including works by De La Mare and Keats. Most affecting,
however, are the setting of the well known but anonymous Days
of the Week, "Monday's child" etc. and, best of all, Every
Flower that Ever Grew, a reworking of an ancient Irish song
with a marvellous text. At a time when Ned Rorem is quite rightly
being reappraised for his contribution to the art song genre,
I am happy to report that here are some antecedents which offer
a very similar, i.e. spinetingling, listening experience, often
in a very similar musical idiom. They are all performed with total
devotion and equal skill by Bolcom and Morris and are alone worth
the price of the disc, even before the other works are considered.
The closing Suite for Viola and Piano,
this time without the involvement of the otherwise omnipresent
Bolcom, is also a superlative composition. Throughout the five
contrasting movements, the plangent tones of the viola are to
the fore and whether singing, lamenting or meditative, the music
is very rewarding, particularly if you respond favourably to pieces
with similar instrumentation by, say, Bloch or Vaughan-Williams.
A strong finish to a formidable disc - on this evidence McKay
should be far better known, at least on a par with Hanson, Schuman
and Piston, if not Barber, Bernstein and Copland. Buy it in the
knowledge that your £5 will be very well spent.
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
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS
George Frederick McKAY
(1899-1970) From A Moonlit Ceremony (1945) Harbor
Narrative (1934) Evocation Symphony "Symphony for
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
BACKGROUND NOTE AND WEBSITE
News and background on
George Frederick McKay from Fred McKay, the composer’s son:-
The National Symphony of Ukraine
will begin recording George Frederick McKay's Violin Concerto
in late October 2003. The Concerto was composed for Jascha Heifetz
in the early 1940s, and recently had a performance with the Seattle
Symphony with Richard Hickox of London conducting. The violin
soloist with NSO will be Brian Reagin, Concertmaster of the North
Carolina Symphony, who has a TV appearance with Yo-Yo Ma to his
credit. Mr. Reagin has also been assistant concertmaster at Pittsburgh
under Andre Previn.
Conductor for the new recording
will be John McLaughlin Williams, who has had tremendous success
recently with Naxos recordings of the works of McKay, Carpenter
and Hadley in the American Classics Series. The new McKay album
will also feature Symphonic works based on the American frontier,
Ancient Music themes from the 16th Century, and a lively exposition
of West Coast American modern life. Professor McKay was the founder
of a Pacific Coast compositional tradition at the University of
Washington, where he taught for 40 years. He also had considerable
influence in the Seattle community and guest conducted the Seattle
Symphony on several occasions during his career.
McKay’s music was also presented
by leading conductors around the world, including Leopold Stokowski,
Sir Thomas Beecham, Arthur Benjamin and Howard Hanson. McKay's
music was heard widely on radio networks during the "radio days"
era 1929-1955, and is just now returning to the classical airways
through two new modern Naxos recordings of his orchestral and
chamber works, which have received very favorable reviews from
Fanfare Magazine, American Record Guide and the internet's Classics
Today, which gave McKay's albums a "10" rating for Artistic Content.
McKay's students have been quite successful as well, with William
Bolcom winning the Pulitzer Prize and having his Opera presented
at the Met in New York in 2003 and composing for films (Illuminata).
Earl Robinson also composed for films and had the hit tunes, "The
House I Live In" (Special Academy Award), "Ballad for Americans,"
and "Black and White"(Three Dog Night). Goddard Lieberson was
the original record producer for West Side Story and South Pacific
along with many other shows on the Broadway scene, and was helpful
in having many of Leonard Bernstein's classical recordings done.
Ken Benshoof's music is currently recorded by the Kronos Quartet.
George Frederick McKay composed
at least 70 works involving orchestra, and this great treasury
of American music is just coming to light in this decade following
his 100th Birthdate Centennial. Symphony Orchestras which championed
his music in the past have included Indianapolis, Seattle, Eastman/Rochester,
National Gallery of Art (Smithsonian), and the Standard Broadcasts
with Carmen Dragon. There were several performances by the NBC
studios in NewYork under various conductors. Current broadcasters
of McKay's works have included Radio France, BBC, CBC, WNYC of
New York, Classic 99 St. Louis, Classic KING Seattle, Radio Australia,
Minnesota MPR and dozens of other NPR stations around the USA.
Part of this response has been due to the attention McKay paid
to Native American themes in his Symphonic Work "From A Moonlit
Ceremony," which is a sincere tribute to a religious ceremony
observed first-hand by the composer in the 1940's near his home
in the Northwest.
Much of the music recorded on
this new CD will be from the time when my father was in his 40s,
and really supremely confident and at the height of his creative
powers; as well as being extremely happy in his personal life
with a family including four young, energetic children to keep
things interesting. (I became the fifth child) We are on track
now to get a very representative collection of his works on modern
recordings, with a number of even more serious works potentially
to be recorded in the future, if there is backing from some major
sources eventually. There is much material related to dance that
will be a treasure to be uncovered at a later date, for instance.
We have had some hints that a very major string quartet group
may be ready to record a McKay quartet soon, as well.
John McLaughlin Williams is doing
a marvelous job creating a new McKay orchestral album with the
National Symphony of Ukraine, and has mentioned to me enthusiastically
that he has hit a "home run" to use the American phrase (appropriately)
with several of the pieces, and we believe this will be a real
blockbuster of a modern music recording when it reaches the listening
John has completed three of the
symphonic works already (June 2003) and the Violin Concerto will
be done in late October in Kiev. The concerto should be magnificent,
given a chance for thorough preparation by the soloist, who is
a very professional player; and we have specially delayed the
recording to give him a chance to meet his other obligations to
the Fall season of his home orchestra in North Carolina. My father
was a professional symphony violinist as well as a composer and
conductor, so the concerto has an added loving quality built in
to the piece.
This record will provide a much
wider range of experience in terms of the works my father composed
over his lifetime and they will be ultimately very listenable,
in the tradition of Vaughan Williams, Sibelius, and Respighi.
We have listened as a family to a Pastorale movement from
one of the current pieces that have already been done and we are
enthralled with the beauty of it, some kind of miracle that happened
before I was born and which I had not had an opportunity to hear
before. I mention Sibelius because my father was trained to a
certain extent by Scandanavian composers (Sinding and Palmgren)
during the 1920s and was encouraged to use true melodic material
in his compositions.
The latest Naxos album (songs
and chamber music) is I believe probably more historical in nature
than a perfect example of my father's overall compositional effort;
however there are some contradictions: the songs unfortunately
were not presented in the full set which contains a very lyrical
piece based on Robert Frost poetry which contrasts nicely with
the more tart numbers present. This was due to copyright problems,
although my father does have a Frost work in publication "Prayer
in Spring" from a much earlier date than this modern work on the
CD. The "Songs" were actually a big hit in live concert recently
when presented in a more lyrical almost "cabaret" style by a wonderful
young grad student in a concert at the University of Washington.
Female reviewers have tended to like them better than males for
some reason. I know that my father's intent was toward the "ironic"
angle, rather than taking all this too seriously. In a certain
sense the album has a large component of Bolcom & Morris in
choosing certain works and their relative emphasis and style of
My analysis of the Viola Suite is that it is an emotional remembrance
of my father's family home and his parents at the time when he
was losing them to old age. He used to talk about an old "Grandfather
Clock" that was an integral part of the big old house he grew
up in, high on a hill in the beautiful city of Spokane, Washington.
I can hear the beating of the clock in parts of the suite, and
there are certainly portraits of family members present too, along
with the grief my father felt at seeing them depart.
It is amazing that my father could have ever produced anything
miniature, since he was physically kind of a big, rugged fellow
who liked boxing and swimming as a youth, and really enjoyed living
"large" in the outdoor world of the American West.
He did analyze himself as an
"introvert" or "bookworm" however, and was able to concentrate
well enough to write books, and also be quite an excellent orchestra
conductor. The little pieces from the 1920s are kind of a recent
discovery, things that he set aside as "immature" long ago, but
which turn out to be wonderfully human and energetic when heard
75 years later, as they captured a very interesting era. The Caricature
Dance Suite is the more professional of a large portfolio of these,
and it comes with a comic orchestra version, and a very successful
band version of the Burlesque March which was his biggest "standard"
piece in publication.
There are so many titles yet to explore (perhaps 800), that we
are expecting a lot of wonderful surprises. My father's work with
symphonic music will be very interesting once more of the works
are available in modern professional recordings.
I recently found an old letter
he wrote concerning his conducting the Seattle Symphony in the
premiere of his "Sinfonietta #3" (the music sounds a bit Wagnerian),
and his comment was that "I really gave it to them" (i.e. the
provincial audience and certain academic types). So therein we
see a rather vigorous competitive character emerging that he usually
did not wish to show publicly. Generally, he was very much loved
by the musicians of the Seattle Symphony, who knew they had a
good thing going with a living and vital composer present in their
musical community. I have not touched on the political and social
and philosophical ramifications of this composer living through
several turbulent decades of the 20th Century, but you can be
sure there is plenty of this!!!
The Sinfonietta #4 has a rather
"dry" title, and to look at the published score you would think
it was perhaps just an academic exercise for the University of
Washington to publish it in 1942 as perhaps just a tip of the
hat to another struggling young American composer; however, it
turns out to be a wonderful masterpiece, full of humor, youthful
experience and breathtaking beauty in the Pastorale, as I mentioned
(the Sinfonietta was premiered by the Seattle Symphony in 1942
Of the Naxos Explore America
CD; it's really very pleasing and has a very nice Hovhaness
cello bit included. Hovhaness and McKay knew each other prior
to 1970 and I met Hovhaness and his wife at quite a few community
concerts, when both composers' works were played here in Seattle
during the 1970s and 1980s. I would drive up from Oregon with
my family to accompany my mother to the concerts when my father's
music was performed. We have quite a few tapes of chamber music
of both Hovhaness and McKay from those sessions, along with music
by other composers from the area, like James Beale and Gloria
Swisher. Ken Benshoof was also performed in those days, and currently
his music is recorded by the Kronos Quartet. He was one of my
father's students during the late 1950s to early 1960s.
GEORGE FREDERICK MCKAY WEBSITE
The site features a photo of
George Frederick McKay as a mature composer while he was at the
peak of his career as Professor at the University of Washington,
Seattle. This picture is from around 1956, when he was 57 years
old. This particular portrait was used for the cover of the Piano
Quarterly Magazine in one issue around that period of time, since
my father was a favorite composer of children's piano music pieces
that were regularly given nice reviews in that publication.