L.A. Phil revives the neglected 'dean of African American composers'

02.18.19
Aaron Diehl
Los Angeles Times

When and why did the “dean of African American composers,” an iconic figure in American music and African American culture, go out of fashion? The when is far easier to answer than the why, especially after hearing the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s compelling programs Saturday and Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall called “William Grant Still & the Harlem Renaissance.”

The program notes claimed that Still’s “Afro-American” Symphony is “one of the most popular American symphonies of all time,” but it sure was a lot more popular in the 1930s and 1940s than today. Premiered in 1931 by the Rochester Symphony and the first symphony to incorporate blues with orchestral music so thoroughly and skillfully, the “Afro-American” was a sensation. The L.A. Phil didn’t get around to it until 1940, and was late in the game, any number of other major orchestras having already programmed it. Leopold Stokowski, a huge Still champion, took the symphony on tour with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1936, including to L.A. Times critic Isabell Morse Jones noted that Still’s blues “are soft, insinuating blues which came from the South, not Gershwin’s Broadway.”

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There was also Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Second Rhapsody.” On Saturday and Sunday, respectively. But here, whatever blues Gershwin got from Broadway were given the real thing by Aaron Diehl, who added considerably improvised embellishment to the piano solos. He is a young player with a touch as staccato as if he were playing a Scarlatti sonata and a nearly Baroque contrapuntal way of improvising, yet he bends pitches. That’s physically impossible, but he makes you believe your ears.
 
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