American Life

Program Notes

FRI NOV 15, 11 am | SAT NOV 16, 8 pm



An American Port of Call

JAMES LEE III (b. 1975)

Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula

PRICE (1887–1953)

Piano Concerto in D Minor in One Movement


STILL (1895–1978)

Symphony No. 1, Afro-American Symphony

  • Longing: Moderato assai
  • Sorrow: Adagio
  • Humor: Animato
  • Aspiration: Lento, con resoluzione

ELLINGTON (1899–1974)

arr. Henderson, Peress;
ed. Mauceri


We are pleased to welcome back Thomas Wilkins to conduct a weekend of music written by African-American composers about the American experience. This music features depictions of American seaports, the juba dance practiced by African Americans before the Civil War, the streets of Harlem in New York City, and moods of longing, sorrow, thanksgiving and hope. In particular, this weekend’s concerts feature the music of two composers who changed the landscape of American orchestral music—William Grant Still and Florence Price, whose first symphonies are the first to be written by African-American male and female composers and performed by major orchestras. We at the CSO are honored to bring the music of these two revolutionary composers to life. In his debut performance with us, Louis Schwizgebel will bring his expertise and love of Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement.


Adolphus Hailstork

Born: April 17, 1941, Rochester, New York

Known for:

  • Celebration (1974)
  • Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed (1980)
  • An American Port of Call (1984)

An American Port of Call

  • Work composed: 1984
  • Premiere: 1985, Virginia Symphony
  • Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons (incl. contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, crash cymbals, glockenspiel, 2 gongs, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tenor drum, triangle, whip, wood block, xylophone, piano, strings
  • CSO notable performances: These performances are the work’s CSO premiere.
  • Duration: approx. 10 minutes

In Praise of Norfolk

Adolphus Hailstork may be best known for his choral and sacred music, but he has written prolifically in all genres, and received accolades for bringing the traditional Americana style of earlier generations into the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The longtime Virginia resident and music professor did for the Chesapeake Bay area what French composer Jacques Ibert had done for three Mediterranean port cities in his celebrated orchestral work Escales (1922). The composer wrote:

The concert overture, in sonata-allegro form, captures the strident (and occasionally tender and even mysterious) energy of a busy American city. The great port of Norfolk, Virginia, where I live, was the direct inspiration.

What to Listen For

Despite its relative brevity, An American Port of Call explores a variety of musical moods and styles. Following an exuberant, fanfare-like opening, we hear some jazzy instrumental solos and syncopated rhythms. A section marked Poco meno mosso (“A little slower”) brings a lyrical moment, but the high activity returns almost immediately. The “sonata-allegro form” mentioned by the composer means that all musical materials are required to return later on, but Hailstork’s recapitulation is far from literal: you cannot step into the same ocean twice! The work concludes with a vibrant coda in a faster tempo.

James Lee III

Born: 1975, St. Joseph, Michigan

Known for:

  • When you feel a little blue (2002)
  • Beyond Rivers of Vision (2005)
  • A Different Soldier’s Tale (2007)

Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula

  • Work composed: 2011
  • Premiere: October 15, 2011, Miami Beach, Florida, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the New World Symphony
  • Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, crash cymbals, glockenspiel, marimba, mark tree, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tambour de Basque, temple blocks, thunder sheet, 2 tom-toms, triangle, vibraphone, wood block, xylophone, harp, celesta, piano, strings
  • CSO notable performances: 1 previous subscription weekend: January 2012, Juanjo Mena conducting
  • Duration: approx. 12 minutes

Two Visions of Heaven

It is impossible to imagine a religious observance of any kind, whether today or in the past, without music playing an essential role. Chanting, singing and playing instruments can elevate the expression of faith to a level words cannot reach. Similarly, our perceptions of the stars have also been translated into music, from medieval speculations about the “music of the spheres” to such modern masterpieces as Gustav Holst’s The Planets (1914–16) or Orion (2002) by Kaija Saariaho. In Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula, American composer James Lee III (who studied with Saariaho at Tanglewood) combines the two visions of heaven, the spiritual and the physical, juxtaposing the tents of Sukkot, the Jewish feast of the Tabernacles, with the starry canopy above us, and Orion’s nebula in particular.

Among the younger generation of American composers, James Lee, who teaches at Morgan State University in Baltimore, is distinguished by a particularly strong commitment to sacred music. In his rapidly growing catalog, we find choral works with titles like “Listen, Ye People of God,” “Psalm 61” or “Alleluia.” The present work shows that for Lee, the sacred inspiration extends to works without text as well.
Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula was commissioned by the Sphinx Commissioning Consortium, formed by the Sphinx Organization and the Detroit, Grand Rapids, Chautauqua, Akron, New World, Nashville and Cincinnati symphonies. (The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra previously performed the work in 2012.)

In contemporary Jewish observance, the eight days of Sukkot are marked by happy family gatherings in sukkot or tents especially built for the holiday, with roofs made of, or decorated with, different kinds of fruit and green leaves. But in ancient Israel, it was a grand festival at the temple in Jerusalem where sacrifices were offered, with pilgrims from all over the country in attendance. We may read about the holiday in several books of the Bible: Leviticus records how it was first instituted in ancient times, and Nehemiah describes how it was revived, and celebrated with great solemnity, following the Jews’ return from their Babylonian exile.

What to Listen For

It is this grandiose, public aspect of the Biblical Sukkot that is evoked at the beginning of James Lee’s piece, with powerful drumstrokes and brass fanfares. The exuberance of the opening contrasts with a much quieter middle section where we may “hear” Orion’s nebula—that famous mass of interstellar gases and dust—in the mysterious sounds of harp, celeste and marimba against a delicate violin melody, played in the high register. The fast runs of two bass clarinets add a wonderful coloristic element, and an expressive oboe theme brings this part of the work to its climax. Then the opening fanfare returns to introduce the highly energetic concluding section.

Florence Price

Born: April 9, 1887, Little Rock, Arkansas
Died: June 3, 1953, Chicago

Known for:

  • Symphony No. 1 in E minor (1932)
  • Ethiopia's Shadow in America (1932)
  • Symphony No. 3 in C minor (1940)

Piano Concerto in D Minor in One Movement

  • Work composed: 1933
  • Premiere: June 24, 1934 in Chicago, Chicago Musical College Orchestra with
  • the composer at the piano
  • Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, bass drum, crash cymbals, snare drum, triangle, strings
  • CSO notable performances: These performances are the work’s CSO premiere.
  • Duration: approx. 18 minutes

A Rediscovered Treasure

If it was difficult to find acceptance, in the first half of the 20th century, as an African-American composer or as a female composer, imagine the obstacles Florence Price had to face as a black woman. Even after the Chicago Symphony under Frederick Stock had performed her First Symphony in E Minor in 1933, other major venues remained closed to her, and her posthumous fate was perhaps even worse than the neglect she suffered during her lifetime. She was largely forgotten, and many of her works were lost—or just about. It was not until 2009 that a large stockpile of manuscripts by Price was discovered in an abandoned house in Illinois that used to belong to the composer. The treasure trove contained, among others, two unknown violin concertos that have since been performed and recorded.

Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement fared both better and worse. Better, because at least it enjoyed several successful performances during the 1930s (in Chicago and Pittsburgh), but worse, because the original orchestral score was lost and has not surfaced to this day. The work had to be re-orchestrated from different piano arrangements and an incomplete set of orchestral parts. This task of reconstruction fell to composer Trevor Weston at the behest of the Center for Black Music Research; it was carried out in 2010, allowing this very attractive work to be heard again after so many years.

What to Listen For

Although the title of the concerto mentions one movement, the piece is clearly in three sections (fast-slow-fast), played without pause. It is a grand Romantic showpiece in the Rachmaninoff manner but with many individual touches that show the uncommon sensitivity of Price’s orchestration and her supreme musical craftsmanship.

The concerto opens with a gentle call from the orchestra, which the solo piano answers with the first of many virtuoso cadenza-like passages. After a traditional orchestral exposition, the soloist re-enters with a dramatic passage, abounding in thundering octaves in both hands. A more lyrical second theme and a grandiose closing melody round out the first section of the concerto.

A tender Adagio in D major follows, whose expressive melody is first introduced by the strings, before being taken over by the piano. The Romantic theme is enriched by some blues-like harmonies, which makes it even more poignant.

The final section, which begins after a few measures functioning as a bridge, is based on a traditional black dance known as the juba (or pattin’ juba) that used to be popular on Southern plantations during the antebellum era. (The dance could be seen in the Oscar-winning film Twelve Years a Slave). This is the dance that inspired Price’s finale, bringing the concerto to an exhilarating close.

William Grant Still

Born: May 11, 1895, Woodville, Mississippi
Died: December 3, 1978, Los Angeles

Known for:

  • Symphony No. 1 "Afro-American" (1930)
  • Troubled Island (1939)
  • Festive Overture (1944) 

Symphony No. 1, Afro-American Symphony

  • Work composed: 1930
  • Premiere: October 29, 1931, Howard Hanson conducting the Rochester Symphony Orchestra
  • Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, bells, crash cymbals, gong, snare drum, suspended cymbals, triangle, vibraphone, wood block, harp, celeste, banjo, strings
  • CSO notable performances: These performances are the work’s CSO subscription premiere; John Morris Russell led the CSO in a community outreach performance at Lincoln Heights Missionary Baptist Church in July 2003.
  • Duration: approx. 23 minutes

"A Harlem Renaissance Man"

Often called the “Dean of African-American composers,” William Grant Still started out as a radical avant-gardist who studied for a while with Edgard Varèse. However, he soon realized that his real mission was to give the Black experience a classical voice. As Catherine Parsons Smith writes in her authoritative biography of Still, speaking of the Afro-American Symphony, “he brought one genre, the symphony, to another, the blues, and transformed both in the process.” This particular fusion of styles served to create, if not a full-fledged program, at least a general narrative, through which Still expressed “The Souls of Black Folk,” to quote the title of W.E.B. Du Bois’s celebrated book of 1903. (Smith finds that “the ‘double consciousness’ of Du Bois permeates the work.”)

Born in Mississippi and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, Still first studied at the historically black Wilberforce University near Dayton, Ohio, before attending Oberlin College. Later he moved east and worked with George Chadwick at the New England Conservatory. Subsequently, until his move to Los Angeles in 1934, Still lived mainly in New York where he was an active participant in the Harlem Renaissance, working as an arranger and performer in many musical productions in the neighborhood. His desire to develop a “racial idiom” was nourished by those years when the literary and artistic creativity of African Americans grew by leaps and bounds. Yet Harlem couldn’t contain the musician whom musicologist Gayle Murchison has called a “Harlem Renaissance Man.” Still’s efforts to make jazz and blues artistically “respectable” paralleled similar efforts by white composers such as George Gershwin, and for that reason, the fact that Still’s symphony quotes a tune that Gershwin made famous (see below) may possess a deeper symbolic significance.

What to Listen For

The Afro-American Symphony is composed of four “parts” (Still preferred that term to “movements”). In the score, each part bears a motto from the Dayton-born poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906), who often used Black dialect in his work.

I. “Longings”
All my life long twell de night has pas’
Let de wo’k come ez it will,
So dat I fin’ you, my honey, at last,
Somewhaih des ovah de hill.

Following an introductory English-horn solo that functions as an invocation, a colorfully orchestrated 12-bar blues passage gets underway, with variations now in a slower, now in a faster, tempo. A second melody, reminiscent of a spiritual, functions as the secondary theme in the sonata form, which ends with a return to the initial blues.

II. “Sorrows”
It’s moughty tiahsome layin’ ‘roun’
Dis sorrer-laden earfly groun’,
An’ oftentimes I thinks, thinks I
‘Twould be a sweet t’ing des to die
An’ go ‘long home.

A close variation on “Longings,” this section, which serves as the slow movement of the symphony, enriches the blues theme with many chromatic inflections (additional half-steps) and other more complex harmonies.

III. “Humor”
An’ we’ll shout ouah halleluyahs,
On dat mighty reck’nin’ day.

Still noted that the “humor” of this section is “expressed through religious fervor.” One could also invert this statement and assert that religious fervor is expressed through good cheer: the fundamental emotion is the kind of joy the “good news” can inspire, while the musical language is, once again, based on the blues. Listeners have long been puzzled by the very conspicuous quotation of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” right at the beginning. This now-famous tune was part of the musical Girl Crazy, which opened in October 1930, just before Still started working on his symphony. Yet it has been claimed that the tune was originally by Still, who had used it before incorporating it in his symphony and Gershwin had an opportunity to hear it. Therefore, Still may have simply borrowed the melody back from his illustrious colleague. The scherzo also features a tenor banjo in the orchestra—apparently the first time this instrument had ever been used in a symphony.

IV. “Aspirations”
Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul.
Thy name is writ on Glory’s scroll
In characters of fire.
High mid the clouds of Fame’s bright sky
Thy banner’s blazoned folds now fly,
And truth shall lift them higher.

In this poem (Ode to Ethiopia) Dunbar abandoned dialect and adopted a solemn, hymn-like tone, to which Still responded with a string of dignified melodies in a slow tempo, only switching to “Vivace” at the very end. The conclusion is triumphant but, surprisingly, in the minor mode, indicating, perhaps, that the victory is not yet complete.

Edward K. ("Duke") Ellington

Born: April 29, 1899, Washington, D.C
Died: May 24, 1974, New York

Known for:

  • "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" (1926)
  • "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" (1932)
  • Harlem (1950)

Ellington is also known for popularizing hits such as "Caravan" and "Take the A Train," and for his inventive use of the orchestra. He is a pivotal figure in the history of jazz. 


  • Work composed:1950
  • Premiere: January 21, 1951, New York (Ellington Orchestra version); March 16, 1955, New York (symphonic version arranged by Luther Henderson), Don Gillis conducting the Symphony of the Air
  • Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 alto saxophones, 2 tenor saxophones, baritone saxophone, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, bongo drums, congas, cowbell, crash cymbals, gourd, shakers, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tambourine, 2 tom-toms, drum set, electric bass, harp, strings
  • CSO notable performances: These performances are the work’s CSO subscription premiere. Erich Kunzel led the Orchestra in a 1970 recording of the work, with Duke Ellington at the piano. Also, Kristjan Järvi led the CSO in Harlem for the 2007 New Year’s Eve concert.
  • Duration: approx. 18 minutes

Duke Ellington had long harboured the ambition to write for large symphony orchestra. Ever since the 1920s, when legendary bandleader 

Paul Whiteman conducted his famous “experiment” that gave the world Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, using an orchestra seemed to be the most important means by which jazz could enhance its status as “serious” music. During the 1940s, Ellington appeared regularly at Carnegie Hall, presenting his personal brand of concert jazz at New York City’s most important classical music venue. It was a real breakthrough when in 1950, Arturo Toscanini, no less, commissioned Ellington to write a piece for the NBC Symphony, resulting in the composition of Harlem. The work was supposed to have been part of a larger composition project titled Portrait of New York, involving several other composers. The project did not materialize, however, and Ellington premiered Harlem with his own orchestra in 1951. The NBC Symphony never played it until it had been reorganized as the Symphony of the Air following Toscanini’s retirement in 1954.

The arrangement for large symphony orchestra was by longtime Ellington collaborator and veteran Broadway arranger Luther Henderson (1919–2003), with further revisions by Maurice Peress (1930–2017). It is said that the last ten measures are by Dayton-born Billy Strayhorn (1915–67), whom Ellington famously called “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine.”

What to Listen For

Ellington originally called his work A Tone Parallel to Harlem—a formulation he had first used in Black, Brown and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the History of the Negro in America (1943). At first, he did not articulate any concrete program about the piece, although the opening trumpet solo was surely intended to evoke the word “Harlem” from the start. At the time, Ellington did not go much beyond the simple image of observing Harlem “through an airshaft window” (as the program note for the first performance put it). By the end of his life, however, he got much more specific, describing the piece as follows:

The piece of music goes like this: (1) Pronunciation of the word “Harlem,” itemizing its many facets from downtown to uptown, true and false; (2) 110th Street, heading north through the Spanish neighborhood; (3) Intersection further uptown—cats shucking and stiffing; (4) Upbeat parade; (5) Jazz spoken in a thousand languages; (6) Floor show; (7) Girls out of step, but kicking like crazy; (8) Fanfare for a Sunday; (9) On the way to church; (10) Church—we’re even represented in Congress by our man of the church; (11) The sermon; (12) Funeral; (13) Counterpoint of tears; (14) Chic chick; (15) Stopping traffic; (16) After church promenade; (17) Agreement a cappella; (18) Civil Rights demandments; (19) March onward and upward; (20) Summary—contributions coda.

In less than 15 minutes, Ellington presents a whole range of musical styles from swing to rumba, and the individual sections vary greatly in tempo from slow to fast. As may be expected, clarinets, saxophones and trumpets—jazz instruments par excellence—carry the most important musical lines, sometimes entwined in amazing jazz counterpoint; yet Henderson did not fail to provide the lush symphonic sound that the occasion required. Toward the end, the score calls for a virtuoso drum cadenza, which is not notated, except for the following instruction by Ellington: “Take us all the way back to Senegal.” The return trip from Africa, then, was left for Strayhorn to take care of.
—Program Notes by Peter Laki