Friday, July 3, 2015

Happy 4th of July! Don Gillis - Portrait of a Frontier Town - The Alamo - Symphony No. 7: Saga of a Prairie School - Sinfonia Varsovia, Ian Hobson - Albany Records 2006

Hello all. I figured I might as well do a 4th-of-July post....really it's just an excuse to share some good American music. I was torn between so many possibilities (Piston, Diamond, Creston, Otto Luening, George Walker, Robert Ward, Leo Sowerby, William Grant Still, Quincy Porter all were top choices...) however really all I wanted was to be able to locate my favorite Copland recording (on Vanguard Classics) with the beautiful and poignant "Our Town" Suite, possibly my favorite Copland work-also on the recording are fantastic readings of "Quiet City", "An Outdoor Overture", and the "Lincoln Portrait". It's all performed impeccably by the Utah Symphony Orchestra under Maurice Abravanel. Hopefully I will find the disc before next year! 

So as I was going through a pile of some of the above mentioned albums, Don Gillis's Orchestral Works Vol. 1 toppled down to the floor. It made things easy. Happily, Gillis's music has much in common with Aaron Copland's; there are wide-open prairies and folksong, and an authentic Americana atmosphere throughout. How to sum up Don Gillis in one sentence? He wrote "feel good" music to make people happy. Everyone everywhere can always use more of that..

"I think it is unimportant for a composer to wonder about what posterity thinks of him. It is more important that he be faithful to his own beliefs in music. He must be the final critic, and he must write what is his own, regardless of current trends or popularity. If his music reflects folk quality, it must be because it is a natural thing, not a contrived use of folk material merely to be 'American.' Honesty, above all things, is the important ingredient a composer needs."

- Don Gillis

Among those neglected American composers ripe for rediscovery, one of the most deserving is Don Gillis (1912-1978). His light-hearted and good-natured scores, imbued with the flavor and spirit of the great Southwest, are quintessential Americana as you will hear.

Gillis was born in Cameron, Missouri on June 17, 1912. As a boy, he studied the trumpet and trombone with private teachers and performed in the Cameron Rotary Club band and his high school orchestra. While still in high school he formed a jazz band for which he prepared arrangements and wrote original pieces. The Gillis family moved to Fort Worth, Texas when Don was 17 years old. In 1931, he enrolled in Texas Christian University as a scholarship trombone player, and became student director of the popular Horned Frog Band during his junior year. He graduated in 1935 and moved on to advanced studies in composition and orchestration at North Texas State University in Denton. Following a two-year stint as staff arranger and producer for a local Fort Worth radio station, Gillis became a member of the production team for NBC's Chicago affiliate. It was about this time that his first major works appeared. The year 1937 saw the publication of the orchestral suites The Panhandle and Thoughts Provoked On Becoming a Prospective Papa; The Raven (tone poem); Willy the Wollyworm(!?) (for narrator and orchestra); and The Crucifixion, a cantata for radio.

In 1944, after only a year in Chicago, NBC brought Gillis to New York to serve as chief producer and writer for the prestigious NBC Symphony Orchestra concerts, working with Arturo Toscanini (with whom he established a close personal friendship) and other renowned conductors. He held this post until the demise of the Orchestra in 1954.

Administrative activities continued to occupy Don Gillis in succeeding years. From 1958 to 1961 he was vice-president of the Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan; chairman of the music department at Southern Methodist University (1967-68); and from 1968 to 1972, he served as chairman of the fine arts department at Dallas Baptist College. In 1973, he was appointed composer-in-residence at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. 

The composer's busy schedule did not prevent him from accumulating an astonishingly prodigious catalog of musical works. In a creative career that spanned four decades, he composed prolifically in all forms: 12 symphonies (including one for concert band); seven operas; two Piano Concertos; Rhapsodies for harp and orchestra, and trumpet and orchestra; cantatas; several works for narrator and orchestra; numerous tone poems and orchestral suites; six string quartets and three woodwind quintets; and works for band of every description. One of his last compositions was called The Secret History of the Birth of a Nation, written in 1976 for the American Bicentennial.

Under the batons of Arturo Toscanini, Frank Black, Antal Dorati, Guido Cantelli, and the composer himself, the NBC Symphony Orchestra performed many of Don Gillis' works, including the world premieres of his Fifth and Eighth Symphonies as well as the radio premiere of Symphony No. 5 1/2. Gillis never forgot his close personal ties to the Orchestra or to Toscanini. So, when NBC decided to disband the orchestra following Toscanini's retirement, it was Don Gillis who spearheaded the efforts to reconstitute the ensemble as the Symphony Of The Air. In 1967, he composed a heartfelt tribute to the "Maestro" which he called "Toscanini: A Portrait of a Century".

I would go into detail about the music but I'm 'supposed' to have cooked a dish for a gathering tomorrow. Also should have been asleep 3 hours ago. Instead I'm listening to Don Gillis, and having a rollicking good time at that ;)

Enjoy everyone!


Scraps said...

Weird: three days ago, I acquired my first Gillis CD, just out of curiosity (I'm always curious about mid-20th-century American composers, and he looked like a Roy-Harris kinda composer); and it's the same!

Tzadik said...

Scraps that is odd! It's worth owning the original though. I came close to posting a Harris disc instead actually, a great recording on Citadel ("Harris conducts Harris").


Scraps said...

A side-comment: I wish somebody would post a blog devoted to the Louisville Orchestra. I had several albums from the LO, now lost (all my records are gone). One of them was, on one side, Roy Harris's "Kentucky Spring". It was beautiful....

Tzadik said...

Scraps, all of the recordings by the L.O. that I have heard are just wonderful; performances equally matched by the repertoire choices. The 'First Edition' series is especially invaluable. I don't have any L.O. on vinyl but many on disc needless to say-whether or not I have the Harris "Kentucky Spring" I cannot say offhand, but will look into it when I have the time!