Tuesday, November 13 , 2018, 10:12 pm | Fair 53º


Gerald Carpenter: Westmont College Orchestra Cues Up Fall Concert on Sunday

The Westmont College Orchestra, conducted by professor Michael Shasberger, will offer its Fall Concert at 3 p.m. Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Barbara, 21 E. Constance Ave.

The Westmont program highlights the California premiere of Two Brothers by Chicago-based composer James Stephenson, as well as the Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American, by the American composer William Grant Still, and the Concerto No. 2 in c-minor for Piano  and Orchestra by Sergei Rachmaninoff, with sophomore Aaron Wilk as piano soloist.

Stephenson's Two Brothers is "a musical remembrance of families divided by the Civil War," narrated by professor John Sider (emeritus) and assistant professor Maurice Lee. The title is surely a reference to the famous Civil War lament, "Two Brothers," which begins with the verse "Two brothers on their way/ One wore blue and one wore gray" and ends with "Two girls waiting at the railroad track/ One wore blue and one wore black."

Still (1895-1978) was self-identified as "Afro-American" — what we now pronounce "African-American" — and his career was in every way remarkable. His parents were both teachers, but all he learned from his father, who was also a local bandleader, came in his genes, because the man died when his son was 3 months old. He had extraordinary luck in his stepfather, Charles B. Shepperson, who encouraged his musical studies, took him to concerts, and bought him RCA Red Seal 78s, of classical music. He managed to study with both George Whitefield Chadwick — a classicist with a keen ear for American musical accents — and with the avant gardist, Edgard Varèse.

Among his many firsts, he was the first African-American to conduct a symphony orchestra and the first African-American composer to have an opera performed by a major company. He was awarded honorary doctorates from Pepperdine University, USC, the University of Arkansas, Bates College, Howard University, the New England Conservatory of MusicOberlin College, the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and Wilberforce University.

As a composer, Still is the real thing. One needn't belabor his authority in employment of the jazz and blues idioms. In fact, as you will hear, he has a light and delicate touch with so-called indigenous themes, and blissfully unselfconscious. Very Modern, very sophisticated, pure Art Deco. More Fred Astaire than Mr. Bojangles. Yet, from his notebooks, Stills thought otherwise.

"I seek in the Afro-American Symphony," he wrote, "to portray not the higher type of colored American, but the sons of the soil, who still retain so many of the traits peculiar to their African forebears; who have not responded completely to the transforming effect of progress."

So, there is a bit of Hattie McDaniel, here and there, but there is a lot more Billie Holiday. It is a four-movement work, rather classical than otherwise, and it swings.

General admission to Sunday's performance is $10. Students are free. To purchase tickets or for more information, call 805.565.6040.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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