HAILSTORK: Symphony No. 1 (1988). Three Spirituals (2005). An American
Port of Call (1985). Fanfare on Amazing Grace (2003). Whitman's
I. Launch Out on Endless Seas (2005)*.
*Kevin Deas (baritone); *Virginia Symphony Chorus; Virginia Symphony Orchestra/Jo
Naxos 8.559722 TT: 59:08.
BUY NOW FROM ARKIVMUSIC
Oh, that Adolphus Hailstork. Sorry, I couldn't resist the cheap shot, thoroughly
undeserved, by the way. Hailstork, born 1941 in Rochester and raised in
Albany, New York, received not only the solid training of an older generation
(at one point, he studied with David Diamond, Vittorio Giannini, and, most
impressive to me, Nadia Boulanger), but the grounding in the avant-garde techniques of the Sixties and Seventies.
However, he had an ace up his sleeve. He wasn't all that interested in writing
avant-garde music but preferred to tease out his own music. Possibly as a result,
his composing career took about a decade longer than it should have to take off.
He first came to sporadic notice in the Eighties and gained real traction in
the Nineties. In the meantime, he taught at various places before finally landing
at Virginia's Old Dominion University, in Norfolk.
I find it hard to describe Hailstork's music, except to call it tonal, which
is not saying much. I can't compare him to anybody else. He really seems to have
written the music inside him alone. I can seldom tell where his music will go;
it unfolds as an almost-continuous surprise without succumbing to incoherence.
Modest in scope, the Symphony No. 1 is laid out in the conventional four movements
-- allegro - slow - scherzo - finale -- although the movements themselves avoid
well-traveled roads. The scherzo, as you might expect, plays rhythmic games,
but I can practically guarantee that you've never heard this particular mixture
of meters before. I love the symphony's directness and vigor. My favorite section
is the slow movement for its idiosyncratic, yet beautiful lyricism.
An American Port of Call, a musical picture of Norfolk, Virginia, impresses me
less. It brings to mind Ibert's Escales, another work I don't care for. There's
nothing obviously wrong with either score, but nothing that grabs me, either.
On the other hand, you can find many opinions on both scores counter to mine,
so your mileage may vary.
On the other hand, the Three Spirituals and the Fanfare on Amazing Grace get
my blood going and I think show Hailstork at his most personal. Although not
that long, they concentrate their force. Furthermore, Hailstork hasn't merely
orchestrated tunes but -- a bit like Morton Gould's treatment of similar material
-- has pulled them apart into structural Legos and rearranged them into original
statements. It helps if you know the tunes, but you needn't know them. Hailstork
uses the spirituals "Every Time I Feel the Spirit," "Kum Ba Ya" (stop
cringing; Hailstork has written a gorgeous piece, even on this unpromising material),
and "Oh, Freedom."
The most ambitious piece on the program, Whitman's Journey is intended
eventually to become a three-movement work. However, Hailstork permits
individual movements. I don't know how many he's written so far. He sets excerpts
American poet, not all that easy to do. Whitman's rhythms and phrasing usually
give composers fits, and those hardy souls who undertake a setting usually
approach the text in one of three ways. First, there's the wholesale rewriting
text to fit standard song structures. Every one of these I've heard has been
awful. Second, a composer "follows along" with a setting that meanders
with the verse. Sometimes it works. When it doesn't, it just seems like noodling
around, like Dana Carvey's "broccoli" song. Third -- the rarest of
all -- the composer finds a coherent musical structure that reflects the poetic
argument. Vaughan Williams is the gold standard here. Hailstork opens Door
#2. Without ever producing a memorable or, better yet, a necessary conjunction
word and music, Hailstork nevertheless writes a compelling work. It's just
that I have no idea how I got from beginning to end. Yet the score succeeds
of this. The gestures of the moment carry you along.
Falletta and her Virginians make a persuasive case for Hailstork. I definitely
want to hear more.
S.G.S. (April 2013)