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George Frederick MCKAY (1899-1970)
Caricature Dance Suite (1924) *
From My Tahoe Window - Summer Moods and Patterns (1965) *
Americanistic Etude, Op. 27 (1924)*
An April Suite, Op. 3 (1924) *
Dance Suite No. 2 (1938) *
Dancing in a Dream (1945) * ²
Excerpts from Five Songs for Soprano (1964) * ¹
Every Flower That Ever Grew (1969) * ¹
Suite for Viola and Piano (1948) ³ º
William Bolcom, piano *
Joan Morris, mezzo-soprano ¹
Logan Skelton, piano ²
Sanford Margolis, piano ³
Mahoko Eguchi, viola º
Recorded at The Brookwood Studio, Ann Arbor, Michigan, July 1999-February 2001.

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.

Neil Horner

see also

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 8.559143 [64.00]

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]


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 public.

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 presentation.

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 also).

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.

Fred McKay



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.



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