Symphony program centers on stories, features two African-American composers

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Mark Russell Smith, right, led the Quad City Symphony and guest pianist Garrick Ohlsson in the October Masterworks concerts.

Every Quad City Symphony Orchestra concert is special, but the next Masterworks is extra meaningful for conductor Mark Russell Smith and guest narrator Shellie Moore Guy.

The program is four pieces inspired by poetry and literature — beginning with Engelbert Humperdinck’s youthful and Wagnerian prelude to his opera “Hänsel und Gretel.” Explore lessons about human nature through Michael Abels’ lush musical illustration of “Frederick’s Fables” by Leo Lionni, narrated by Quad-City poet and author Shellie Moore Guy.

Triumph over darkness through William Grant Still’s melodic and aspirational “Poem for Orchestra,” before joining in love’s struggle to conquer all in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s rapturous “Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy-Overture.”

Smith said in the pre-recorded Concert Conversations that if there’s ever a QCSO program made for kids, this is it. “It’s four shorter pieces, and each of them literally has its own story and inspiration,” he said. “It’s eminently approachable but the music is very sophisticated; it’s colorful. It’s a program for everybody.”

The middle two works are by writers too rarely heard in orchestra halls — 20th-century African-Americans. For the “dean of African-American composers,” William Grant Still, this will be the first the QCSO has performed his music. The Poem for Orchestra was premiered in 1944 by the Cleveland Orchestra.

Active during the middle years of the 20th century, Still (1895-1978) was one of the most successful and prolific American composers (nearly 200 works, including five symphonies, four ballets, nine operas, over 30 choral works), and a pioneer for Black artists in American classical music.

Born in 1895 in Mississippi, he trained first for medicine at Wilberforce University before abandoning his studies to study music at Oberlin College. Over the course of his long career, he earned many honors, including three Guggenheim Fellowships and nine honorary doctoral degrees.

William Grant Still (1895-1978) was the first Black composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra in the U.S., in 1931.

Perhaps his most emblematic work is his grand opera on the tumultuous Haitian Revolution, “Troubled Island,” with a libretto by Langston Hughes. At its premiere in 1949 by the New York City Opera, it was the first opera by a Black composer performed by a major opera company in the U.S.

“My basic musical training emphasized quite naturally European musical culture,” said Still in an interview with Voice of America Radio in 1949, “but this failed to satisfy me completely as a basis of an idiom for expressing myself. Therefore, I sought to create an idiom unmistakably American.” Still’s “unmistakably American” style is highly evident in his Poem for Orchestra.

Commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra, Poem is one of his most-often performed works. It bears no specific program, meaning Still did not specify a story underlying the work. But nonetheless, Still takes his audience on a highly emotional journey using the languages both of traditional classical music and the American soundscape, particularly mid-century Hollywood, where he frequently found employment as a film score orchestrator, according to QCSO program notes.

The QCSO (in its 107th season) has not played another work before by Still. Other African-American composers whose work has been done on Masterworks concerts include Michael Abels, Duke Ellington, Scott Joplin (arrangements), Jessie Montgomery, and George Walker.

Long relationship between composer and conductor

Abels (born 1962) is a contemporary African-American composer who Mark Russell Smith has known since they were in elementary school together in Phoenix, Ariz.

“We went to music camp together. We have a lifelong, literally since 2nd grade relationship,” Smith said. “I love his music, I love him. With kind of his more recent successes, his career has taken off.”

Michael Abels, right, with Mark Russell Smith.

Abels has achieved great success in a variety of artistic contexts, navigating between the worlds of concert and film music. He is best known for his scores to Jordan Peele films — the Oscar-winning “Get Out” (2017) and “Us” (2019), for which Abels won the World Soundtrack Award, the Jerry Goldsmith Award, a Critics Choice nomination, an Image Award nomination, and multiple critics awards. The hip-hop influenced score for “Us” was short-listed for an Oscar, and was named “Score of the Decade” by online publication The Wrap.

As a concert composer, Abels has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Meet The Composer, and the Sphinx Organization, among others. His orchestral works have been performed by the Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and many more.

In the mid-1990s, Abels took four of Leo Lionni’s picture books and composed music to be played while they were read aloud. Initially narrated by James Earl Jones and Garrison Keillor (in Plymouth, Minn.), each of the four vignettes can be performed alone or in combination. Lionni’s gently offbeat children’s books often focus on themes of self-realization, individual uniqueness, and unexpected transformations.

His storylines, though never sensational, are full of curious narrative turns and charming revelations. Each of these characteristics is evident also in Abels’ work; he often attaches a musical idea to a particular character or group of characters, contrasting sparse and plaintive music with occasional fantastical elements or exuberant, dancelike passages, according to the QCSO program notes for “Frederick’s Fables.”

Michael Abels wrote the film scores for Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and “Us.”

Last April, the QCSO did Abels’ “Delights and Dances” (2007, rev. 2012), for string quartet and string orchestra. The QCSO commissioned his orchestral work “Liquify” in 2017, and his well-known work “Global Warming” was also performed by the QCSO in 2011.

First time on QCSO stage

Shellie Moore Guy of Rock Island is a well-known local storyteller, poet and author, and she’s making her debut with the QCSO this weekend.

Guy will narrate Michael Abels’ “Frederick’s Fables” in the concerts Nov. 6-7.

“I love the stories!” she said of the Abels. “We’re all familiar with these kinds of children’s stories. They bring back that time when someone read to you or you read them to someone else. Adults as well as children appreciate good stories.

“When I first read ‘Frederick,’ it reminded me of African folktales,” Guy said. “The protagonist sometimes seems on the surface, to be someone who is really doing something different from the others and would be easy to disregard him, and think of him as maybe lazy or shiftless or just different. It turns out, he has this incredible knowledge and actually teaches and saves them. Fables entertain, but they’re also full of life lessons.”

The music adds weight and drama to the spoken story, Guy said.

“The music, like the stories, contain all of the emotions,” she said. “Because in these stories you have you have excitement, you have discovery and you have fear. And so the score, the music and the words become the story.

It’s also very important that the QCSO has one program with two African-American composers (in a classical music world long dominated by white composers), she noted.

“You know, excellence is excellence,” Guy said. “I think it’s a cool story that Mark Russell Smith grew up with Michael Abels and they both became excellent musicians and directors.”

“But there are plenty of Michael Abels around.” she said. “It’s good for the entire community to know this, and to experience something, to experience the work of composers that are not always presented.”

“Directors of symphonies do what they’re comfortable doing; they present what they’re comfortable presenting,” Moore Guy said. “I think that Mark Russell Smith is someone who is comfortable with presenting works that haven’t been heard before here in the Quad Cities. That’s a good thing. It’s a great thing.”

Of the pioneering William Grant Still, she said: “It’s just a great story. His journey to becoming a celebrated conductor and composer is an African-American story and an American story. And here we are presenting his work in the Quad Cities, which is a huge step.

“Historically in this country, we’ve been presented with the stories and the people who do not resemble the Stills and the Abels,” Guy said. “It is good to see that Quad City Symphony is presenting something more.”

QCSO also partners with visual artists

This season, the orchestra also is partnering with six local artists to create limited edition designs inspired by Masterworks performances. For this month — “Masterworks II: Fantasies and Fables” — artist Jon Burns created a lighthearted homage to the fabled king of the back row, the tuba.

The Jon Burns-designed T-shirt for the QCSO.

Half of all the T-shirt sales will benefit the QCSO. You can order online ($20 each) through Nov. 30th, at https://bit.ly/3GAo9a7.

Jon Burns is an artist and musician from Moline, who works in the visual mediums of painting, drawing, photography, graphic design, and videographer. He also works in the audio mediums of songwriting, live performance, as well as audio production and engineering.

As a fine artist, he has shown pieces in galleries including Midcoast Fine Arts, Bucktown Center for the Arts, Rozz Tox, Black Hawk College, Peanut Gallery, and Mode Gallery. As a graphic designer he works for Cartouche Records and Ragged Records. As a musician, he performs under the name Centaur Noir.

“We decided to tap into the wealth of local artists this season because we wanted to have special edition merchandise to coincide with each Masterworks this season,” said Marc Zyla, QCSO director of education and community engagement. “The QCSO is proud to support these artists and it has been really exciting to see how our concert repertoire has inspired their art.”

The lineup of artists for each Masterworks is:

  • Masterworks I – Johnnie Cluney
  • Masterworks II – Jon Burns
  • Masterworks II – Apollo Design Agency
  • Masterworks IV – Richard Young
  • Masterworks V – TBA
  • Masterworks VI – Aimee Ford

The orchestra is working with Davenport-based GnarCity Clothing to produce the T-shirts and the public can purchase them for 30 days surrounding each performance. Orders can be made at https://www.gnarcityclothing.com/collections/all.

QCSO performances will be Saturday, Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m. at the Adler Theatre (136 E. 3rd St., Davenport), and Sunday, Nov. 7 at 2 p.m. at Centennial Hall (3703 7th Ave., Rock Island). For tickets or more information, call 563-322-7276 or visit qcso.org.

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