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George Frederick McKAY (1899-1970)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1940)*
Suite on Sixteenth Century Hymn Tunes (1962)
Sinfonietta No. 4 (1942)
Song Over The Great Plains (1953)**
*Brian Reagin, (violin);**Ludmilla Kovaleva (piano)
National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/John McLaughlin Williams
Recorded Kiev, 2003
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559225
[78:18]


George Frederick McKay’s music is not likely to be familiar to those outside the USA unless they have already heard the other two Naxos discs issued over the last eighteen months. Enterprising Naxos must be credited with giving McKay’s reputation one of its biggest ever boosts, certainly since the composer’s death thirty five years ago.

So for those who do not know his music, what is it like? Well, the Violin Concerto, the main work here, is late-romantic in style; very late. It is not unlike Korngold’s better known work of slightly earlier (1937) which was revised five years after McKay’s in 1945. McKay spent nearly all his life in his native Washington State, most of it as a university professor in Seattle, a relative musical backwater. Korngold, Austrian émigré, together with so many other musicians from the German-speaking world, was living just down the coast in the service of Hollywood. Their compositional styles are not a million miles away. One of the most obvious differences is that the textures of McKay’s concerto are less thick than those in the Korngold work and there are fewer of Korngold’s squelchy romantic harmonies. Some might regard that as a virtue. However, I will stick my neck out and suggest that those who enjoy Korngold’s Violin Concerto are bound to be impressed by McKay’s.

In spite of the relative clarity of texture, it could be possible, in performance, to over-romanticise the music with, for example, indulgent lush string tone. The Ukrainians do not do this – their strings are fairly thin in tone but I do not mean that pejoratively. The whole performance is convincing: conductor, soloist and orchestra in accord interpretively. Brian Reagin, a man who manages to combine a distinguished solo career with the leadership of the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, gives a most persuasive account of a work that I have never heard before.

The Suite on Sixteenth Century Hymn Tunes is a lighter work for double string orchestra. It started life as an organ piece. Although based on themes of Frenchman Jean Bourgeois, to English ears it will have something of Tudor pastiche about it, with hints of Granville Bantock (1868-1946). On hearing the opening modal-sounding Méditation movement, listeners cannot help being reminded of Vaughan Williams’ famous Tallis Fantasia. I found it delightful listening in its own right.

The Sinfonietta, like the concerto, is in classical fast-slow-fast form, the first movement characterised by rhythmic drive and a certain neo-classic rigour. The second movement, pastoral in style, has a richness of both texture and ideas.

So far we have had three works that are, within the context of a conservative style for the period, quite different in nature. Put these together with the music of Naxos’s other two McKay discs showing native influences such as Jazz and pop, then we have a composer displaying an eclecticism of which Leonard Bernstein might have been proud. What Bernstein knew of his music though, I have no idea. Perhaps someone could tell me.

The final work is a single movement lasting a quarter of an hour. It is a programmatic, rhapsodic, pastoral piece evoking the stirring of spring over the "brooding landscape" of the plains. On first hearing, it seems to me a distinguished example of the nature genre. The use of a piano is innovative, especially in the fact that it plays the role of a meadowlark. Western music has always associated birds with wind instruments, specifically reed ones. The piano tends to play in high register to suggest elevation and flightiness. Mind you, this might be pragmatism rather than innovation. The work was a commission to celebrate the centennial of the Steinway Piano Company.

It is a typical Naxos touch that in leading a revival of the music of an American composer from North-West U.S.A., a Ukrainian Orchestra is employed, recording in Kiev which is as near as dammit on the opposite side of world from Seattle. One might have had doubts about this, but the players, under their American conductor John McLaughlin Williams, appear astonishingly at home with this unfamiliar music. Having already recorded one orchestral disc, they must now be considered world experts in the playing of McKay’s music. Congratulations to them and to Naxos for this deserved revival.

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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