RSNO / Gray

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Like most conductors, the RSNO’s South Carolina-born assistant conductor Kellen Gray is marking his particular tenure with some of his own passions. In this Wednesday matinée concert his focus was on African American Voices, composers of colour whose names are not so well-known as, say Gershwin or Copland, despite being contemporaries, but who certainly deserve to be heard.

Gray’s enthusiasm was palpable, expressed personably in a spoken introduction, but equally championed through performances that recognised the fluid reverie that is George Walker’s  Lyric for Strings, the showman skills of William Grant Still’s Symphony No 1 “Afro-American” with its single banjo striking up in the hottest jazz moments, and the neatly-integrated stylistic fusion that gives William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony its own self-identifying intensity.

Walker’s sumptuous idyll, its thick-set string writing offset by ever-shifting layered detail, provided a restful opener, Gray unfolding the smooth, mellifluous contours with patience and understanding. It was the least characterised of the afternoon’s music, but its quiescent satisfaction sat well as a post-prandial meditation.

On the other hand, Still’s ebullient symphony would not have been out of place in the dance hall, at least those rumbustious tracts within its four movements that had the RSNO switching to jazz orchestra mode, the swooning muted brass, kaleidoscopic wind embellishments and searing string flourishes adding their own chipper choreography to stomping bass and percussion.

If, as a result, the structure relies more on episodical blocks and bluesy melodies than any long-term organic vision, this performance, full of colour and energy, offered plenty delights to compensate, not lest on the Finale home straight, a cartoonesque menagerie equal in fast-changing narrative to the Tom and Jerry soundtracks of Scott Bradley.

Dawson’s symphony offered something more classically-bound, a language still deriving its song-based thematic soul from African American culture, but doing so within a more obviously symphonic context. Thus it was often hard to distinguish between the actual modally-characterised Spiritual melodies and other invented motifs reminiscent of Dvorak or Tchaikovsky. 

Most notable, though, was the vibrance of this performance by Gray and the RSNO that completed their warm-hearted case for this concert’s attractive, neglected music. If you missed it, and wish you hadn’t, the entire programme is available on the RSNO’s African American Voices disc, out on Linn Records (CKD 699).

Ken Walton