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The American Scene


The American Scene



SAT, NOV 10, 2018
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
1037 SW Broadway,
Portland, OR 97205


Portland’s locally-grown orchestra since 1924 opens its landmark 95th season with distinguished composer William Grant Still’s The American SceneThe Far West, a three-movement suite from his much larger work The American Scene, which explores American identity in different geographical regions of the country. Known as “the Dean” of African-American composers, Still captures in this suite themes depicting America’s unique western soul. Also on the program, PYP will reveal the heart of Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, whose expansive Symphony No. 6 is radiant and robust with pastoral elements expressing the sheer joy of being alive.

Hearing is believing. Discover for yourself why The Chicago Tribune called the orchestra “brilliant in all departments!”


  • William Grant Still: The American Scene: The Far West

  • Dvořák: Symphony No. 6

William Grant Still (1895-1978) is labeled “The Dean of African-American Composers” for the many musical ‘firsts’ he accomplished.  The history books suggest a smooth-flowing professional life, but the reality was far rockier. In mid-career, Still fell out with both the strict modernist classical music community and the more militant parts of the civil rights movement.  His music was thus unjustly ignored, and is only recently beginning to find its audience.

Still, himself of African-American, Spanish, Native American, Irish and Scots ancestry, married a White, Jewish-American librettist, at great cost to both of them.  He envisioned a proudly multicultural America, as harmonious in race and ethnic relations as in music; the accessible, programmatic American Scene: Five Suites for Young Americans (1957) beautifully illustrates this vision.

Of The Far West suite in particular, Still’s daughter Judith Anne Still wrote: “The far west was my Father’s dream when he was in New York—when he worked in L.A. with Paul Whiteman he immediately loved California. It was still full of open country and Olvera Street, and was not as clannish and racist as New York.  In 1934 there was integration among many artists and musicians—wonderful intellectual discussions. As soon as WGS got his Guggenheim Fellowship, he got in his ‘34 Ford and drove out to live in L.A.  On weekends my father could drive out to the Santa Monica pier, or to the old Spanish missions to pray, or to the places where the Afro-Spanish settlers established Los Angeles. When he and my Mother worked together, they had intellectual gatherings at Big Bear: priceless scenery and peace of mind.  I daresay the Far West was in the soul of William Grant Still.”

The powerful, poignant Sixth symphony by Antonin Dvorak is not only still compelling to audiences today, but also illustrates the sometimes extreme effects that nineteenth- and twentieth-century European ethnic and nationalistic politics had on the arts.  For instance, the 1881 premiere had to be moved from Vienna to Prague because of Viennese musicians’ protests against non-Germanic music; the Vienna Philharmonic didn’t perform it until 1942, when much of Czech territory was claimed by Nazi Germany.  Further, it was mistakenly known as the “First” for many years as it was the first Dvorak symphony known outside Prague.

Although the sophistication and maturity of this symphony enabled Dvorak’s long-worked-for breakthrough, Dvorak had a mere two years of formal composition education. He learned everything else through on-the-job training as a violist in Prague, and study on his own. Dvorak was especially influenced by Beethoven and Brahms**; Brahms, in fact, played a crucial role in Dvorak’s career. Impressed with Dvorak’s submissions to an Austrian state stipend competition he judged, Brahms got Dvorak’s music to the powerful Berlin publisher who publicized it far beyond Prague.

Alongside the many homages to his Germanic heroes in the first, second, and fourth movements, however, Dvorak’s nationalistic spirit permeates the symphony as well.  Sometimes it appears in popular folk melodies or Dvorak’s signature gently bucolic episodes, but most famously in the driving syncopation of the Furiant (a Czech dance) in the wildly popular third movement.

Despite the initial jingoism hampering the premiere, once the Sixth symphony was heard and published, it was clear that it melded its many influences so well that critics and audiences could hear whatever they wanted in it, and the work finally opened the door for Dvorak to the wider world.

Earlier Event: November 8
Tchaikovsky v. Drake
Later Event: November 11