by Walter Simmons
HAILSTORK Symphonies: Nos. 2, 3 • David Lockington, cond; Grand Rapids SO • NAXOS 8.559295 (77:32)
This recent release of two hefty symphonies from Naxos American Classics represents my introduction to the music of Adolphus Hailstork. Now in his late 60s, Hailstork was born in Rochester, NY, and was educated at the Manhattan School of Music and Michigan State University. He is currently a professor at Old Dominian University, in Norfolk, Virginia, and has received many distinguished awards and commissions.
The two symphonies offered here provide a pretty illuminating impression of what Hailstork’s music is about, as they are both mature works and share much in common, although the composer’s program notes make an effort to distinguish them. (Speaking of program notes, I must say that I find it annoying when the accompanying material fails to include the dates of composition of the works on the program. As for these two symphonies, the best I can tell you is that No. 2 was composed during the late 1990s, and No. 3 sometime after that.) Despite the recency of their composition, the musical language and “feel” of these two works is quite traditional, harking back to the music of the Boulanger-trained composers who contributed so much to the American symphonic mainstream of the 1950s. (Although it shouldn’t need to be said, the foregoing statement is a description, not a criticism.) More specifically, they suggest something of a fusion of the chromatic, dissonant, but not atonal styles of David Diamond and Walter Piston—not surprising because both of the latter studied with Boulanger, and Hailstork himself studied with Diamond and Boulanger (not that composers are necessarily genetic clones of their teachers). What does distinguish these two works from typical neo-romantic Americana of the 1950s is their more active use of percussion (almost always an indication of post-1985 composition), and their use of certain African-American melodic and harmonic inflections, as well as infectious rhythmic devices that suggest a similar source. (Of course, one might note that Piston et al. were also pretty inventive in their treatment of this element as well.)
I found both symphonies to be approximately equally satisfying—enjoyable enough to warrant deeper acquaintance, with slow movements of considerable beauty and emotional conviction, while the faster movements are pleasingly exuberant. To my ears they are more graceful than Diamond, but less concise than Piston. In fact, my chief criticism of both works is that as rather lengthy, four-movement affairs, each approximately 40 minutes long, neither has the expressive weight to justify or sustain such an expanse of time. The result is that the outer movements of both works—though entertaining enough—are quite episodic, and seem as though they might easily have been shortened, without much sacrifice of their overall impact. The slow movements, moving as they are, might have benefited from some pruning as well.
The Symphony No. 2 was commissioned by and introduced by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The composer indicates that the slow movement was written in response to a visit to Ghana, where he witnessed dungeons in which slaves had been housed before being shipped overseas. It is quite affecting, as noted above. I must say that the show-stopper of the work—of the entire CD, in fact—(I could actually imagine a performance being interrupted for an immediate encore)—is the Scherzo of No. 2. At five minutes, it is simply sensational, and too exciting to be so short. The finale also has much brilliant music, and concludes triumphantly.
At this point I prefer No. 2 slightly to No. 3, but the performance of No. 3 (commissioned and introduced by the orchestra and conductor represented here) seems somewhat stronger than that of No. 2. I think that No. 2 would benefit tremendously from a tighter, more incisive, and more full-throated reading; there is a tentative quality here that seems to sap its energy and constrain the work’s full impact.
The Symphony No. 3 adds a touch of Reichian minimalism to the American symphonic mix (and if that sounds too unlikely to you, I urge you to listen and hear for yourself). Of course, what I am likening to Reich may be the influence of African drumming, which, after all, was a major factor on that composer’s development. All in all, this, like its predecessor, is a very enjoyable work, though it lacks a sense of creative urgency that might enable it to make a stronger impact or justify its length.