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George Frederick McKAY (1899-1970)
Epoch - An American Dance Symphony (I. Symbolic Portraits; II Pastoral; III. Westward; IV. Machine Age Blues) (1935) [62:52]
University of Kentucky Women's Choir
University of Kentucky Symphony/John Nardolillo
rec. Singletary Center for the Arts Concert Hall, Lexington, Kentucky, USA, 6-8 February 2007
Experience Classicsonline

George McKay’s Epoch is a symphony to be dance-interpreted rather than a symphony of dance vitality.

McKay’s natural lyrical inclination is given full rein here in a work that explores in philosophical numbers the essence of four American poets. This is the listener’s first impression in Symbolic Portraits which is laced with some tart dissonances that rise once to yelp and howl. This pepper adds savour to the cantabile flow of a movement that tracks the life and spirit of Edgar Allen Poe. The orchestration is lucid, adept and generally transparent. It carries the redolence of Ravel, Bax in his more transparent textures, Patrick Hadley and George Butterworth. Pastoral (Sidney Lanier) includes a women’s choir with the orchestra. Their vocalise contribution is balmy and has some kinship with the vocalise in Vaughan Williams’ Oxford Elegy. The music has a warm Palladian outdoor air that radiates contentment: clover, benevolent insect-hum, the sun, cooling shade and birdsong. It is not quite as saturated as Bax’s Spring Fire but it is in that vicinity. Westward! (Walt Whitman) includes statuesque brass writing that shouts epic resolve, gritty determination and frontier defiance with a moment of writing that recalls Roy Harris at 12:07. Then about 2:23 the toe-tapping rhythm of city life emerges but by no means soulless and still in touch with rustic idylls which continue to enwrap the composer at the slightest excuse. The prominent and affecting song of the cor anglais and the oboe momentarily suggests a link with Aranjuez but the impression comes and goes in an instant. Folk Dance at 13:28 suggests the composer was familiar with Petrushka as well as turkeys in the straw. Machine Age Blues (Carl Sandburg) is vehement, sometimes iron-clad mechanistic, with sirens and corrugated rattles, rivet guns and jack hammers. It is not as wild as Mossolov’s Steel Foundry nor as overpowering as Honegger’s Pacific 231 but it belongs to the same literature. It takes a while to get to The Blues (5:10) but when they come they are disconsolate and heart-weary. There are some jazzy ululations and Gershwin-like piano articulation at 8:22 but McKay keeps returning to his lyrical True North as we hear even in this last movement. A phalanx of saxophones ruffle the Charleston velvet at 10:23 onwards as a metropolitan futuristic world strikes a dissolute meld with Jazz. An unnervingly iterated siren wail leads to a closing roll of drums.

The progress of the music has to be followed across clear pauses as the composer moves from episode to episode within the movements. Structurally it could have done with more variation but that is to criticise it for staying true to a consistent mood. The symphony was originally a multi-media event – not quite in the Scriabin sense but certainly one in which dance, singing, music and spectacle played complementary parts. Even so the music can be appreciated in its own right as a series of poetic tableaux. As a work it is predominantly reflective and evocative rather than dramatic. It is a fascinatingly distinctive yet low key revival skilfully presented and yielding its rewards in intensely pensive currency.

Rob Barnett


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