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George Frederick McKAY (1899-1970)
Concerto for Violin and orchestra (1940) [26.01]
Suite on Sixteenth Century Hymn Tunes (1962) [20.32]
Sinfonietta No. 4 (1942) [17.46]
Song Over Great Plains (1953) [13.59]
Brian Reagin (violin)
National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/John McLaughlin Williams.
rec. 15–20 June, 29-31 October 2003, Large Concert Studio of the National Radio Company of Ukraine, Kiev. DDD
NAXOS 8.559225 [78.18]


We have here another in Naxos’s American Music Series. When it first started, it was difficult at the time to see what could be recorded after Schuman, Copland, Harris and the like, but Naxos should be extremely proud of this very extensive series. They have turned up a wealth of music, not many of them masterpieces but of extreme interest to music lovers looking for something a little out of the ordinary. They are not skimping on artists either so one can be sure of at least a decent performance at a rock bottom price.

George Frederick McKay was a composer domiciled in the U.S. Northwest, and Naxos have already released a couple of discs of his music, one of them also conducted by John McLaughlin Williams, albeit with a different orchestra. The composer is one of the few that received all of his musical education in the U.S., unlike many of his colleagues who usually had a spell in France, Germany or the Scandinavian countries. He attended University of Washington, Seattle and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. After graduating in 1923, he then had teaching posts in North Carolina, South Dakota and Missouri. His final position was as Professor of Music at Washington State University, Seattle. He had an extremely successful career in music, including composing, teaching and leading in the appreciation of American Music. His time of maximum fame was in the 1930s and 1940s.

It is therefore surprising how relatively little he is remembered. I hope that Naxos’s efforts will go some way towards rectifying this situation. His most substantial work on this disc is his Violin Concerto which he entered in the Heifetz Competition in 1940. He thought it had a good chance of winning the competition, but in the event, it received only an honourable mention, although having been praised by Heifetz himself. The reason for this lack of success was probably influenced by the composer being thought of as an artist working away from the main musical centres, being at the time resident in Seattle, not known as a high quality musical centre.

The Concerto was apparently modelled upon the Max Bruch First Violin Concerto in G minor, but little of this influence is readily apparent. Like many other traditional American orchestral works, it is beautifully crafted, and well orchestrated. It appears to be well written for the soloist, but like other similar works, its lyrical inspiration can at times appear limited.

The other works on this disc are similarly attractive. Particular mention needs to be made of the beautiful Meditation of the Suite, and the Moderato pastorale of the Sinfonietta. These two movements alone make the disc well worth purchasing.

At the beginning of this American Series, some of the ensembles chosen for the work did not seem to be comfortable with the American cross-rhythms, but the Ukraine orchestra has done enough of this work now to sound totally idiomatic under Williams’ sure leadership. The performances of all of these works are excellent and I do urge you to try them.

I can thoroughly recommend this issue to the collector, but do not be mislead – this is not American music as we know of it today. Well done Naxos – another first class issue well played, performed and recorded by all concerned. Add to this exemplary notes on the music, the excellent soloist and conductor and all at a rock bottom price.

John Phillips

 

see also review by John Leeman

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] [RB]

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]

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.


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.

Cheers!

Fred McKay



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