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William Grant Still's "Summerland"

 Portrait of William Grant Still
Carl Van Vechten
Library of Congress Digital Archives
Portrait of William Grant Still

As a child, Celeste Headlee thought everybody’s grandfather had a music room at the back of their house with a baby grand piano and musical scores everywhere. But when she got older, she learned just how important her grandfather was to the history of music in America.

And Avlana Eisenberg first fell in love with William Grant Still’s music while listening to her mother, the renowned American violinist Zina Schiff, preparing an album of American music in the 1990’s. That album, called Here’s One, included several of Still’s works for violin and piano, and sparked Avlana’s interest as she developed her own career as a young musician, and later as a conductor.

Together, Schiff and Eisenberg have now recorded some of these same works by Still, in their orchestral versions, along with some of his orchestral works that have never been recorded before. The album is called Summerland, on the Naxos label.

I talked with Celeste Headlee and Avlana Eisenberg about this release, and about the connections to Still and his music that brought them together, and about the enduring – and, to some, rediscovered – power of the composer’s music.

To hear the interview, click on the player above, and read the transcript below.

Learn more about and hear excerpts from Summerland, from Naxos.

Learn more about William Grant Still, from Laura Carlo.


Alan McLellan [00:00:00] I'm Alan McClellan for WCRB and And I'm here with Avlana Eisenberg and Celeste Headlee. Avlana is the conductor on a brand new recording of the music of William Grant Still with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and violinist Zina Schiff. I should also mention that Avlana Eisenberg is the daughter of violinist Zina Schiff. There's a connection there. And Celeste Headlee is the granddaughter of William Grant Still and well known on public radio. Welcome to you both.

Celeste Headlee [00:00:30] Thank you.

Avlana Eisenberg [00:00:31] Thank you so much.

Alan McLellan [00:00:32] So this is really kind of a family affair. Can you talk about how it came to be, Avlana?

Avlana Eisenberg [00:00:41] Sure. So, the journey leading up to this recording actually dates back to the mid-nineties, when Zina discovered some of William Grant Still's shorter works for violin and piano as she was preparing to record an all-American album. And she was sent these works and immediately took to them and decided to program them as part of this recording. They make up about a quarter of this album, which was titled Here's One, which is actually the title of one of Still's works. And I remember as a kid listening to her practice these pieces, and I fell in love with them. Here's One quickly became one of my favorite of her albums. And then over the years, she started championing other pieces, including Pastorela, which we also did on this album. And so, for me, this has felt like this culmination and getting to work with her on the orchestral versions of some of these same pieces that I've heard her play in recital and on this album here as one, and then get to flesh out the album with never-before recorded orchestral works by William Grant Still has been quite remarkable.

Alan McLellan [00:01:47] So Celeste, can you talk about your relationship with your grandfather? This is an amazing connection that you have. I mean, we consider you an NPR host and then we think, oh, there's a connection with music that's very important here. And, but it's a great advantage in a way, because I think the significance of it is not lost on you.

Celeste Headlee [00:02:13] Yeah. And I'm the only one in the family that pursued music. I'm the youngest grandchild. And as my grandmother used to say, the last gas station before the desert, right? Like I was the last chance. And I ended up being the only musician in the family. Yeah, he was hugely impactful in my younger life. I had no idea he was famous, but my father died when I was only nine months old, and so my grandfather was my main patriarchal figure growing up. And he had his work room. His music room was in the back of the house. I thought everybody had a music room with a baby grand piano and musical scores in their house. And I thought everyone had in their living room a case full of trophies and keys to cities. So, I mean, he was my favorite person growing up. It just wasn't until he passed away that I realized he was famous.

Alan McLellan [00:03:10] And there's something, I mean, there's something unique about his music that you touch on a little bit in that in the beginning of the program notes. I was noticing that the theme, or the motivating factor is love. Can you talk about that a little bit, Avlana?

Avlana Eisenberg [00:03:28] Sure. So, one remarkable thing about Still's music, I think, is how evocative it is, how varied it is. And there is running throughout, and there are moments that are extremely poignant and haunting. But there's also this rawness of human emotion, of intimacy, of vulnerability. And he's able somehow to capture so many different moods, often within the same movement, and yet put this all together in a coherent whole. And there's always some element of hope, some element of perseverance against all odds. And it was really, it just continued to be compelling as I grew closer and closer to the scores and then got to work on the music with live musicians and the recording sessions.

Alan McLellan [00:04:23] And the music itself, it crosses boundaries in many ways. I mean, in a lot of music through, you know, classical music through the 20th century and 21st has crossed those boundaries. But it seems like his was kind of pioneering in that. Do you have a sense of that, Celeste?

Celeste Headlee [00:04:43] Yeah. I mean, he was a polymath musically. He wanted to, you know, when he heard a piece of music or a new sound, he wanted to know how people produced it. And so, he wanted to learn from literally everyone. And this is somebody who made his living writing for jazz bands, small quintets, radio orchestras. He wrote for all different kinds of ensembles, and he learned how to create different sounds. And then when orchestras or organizations were playing his music, he would go and talk to the musicians while they were playing and say, How do you like your part? He never wanted to create, you know... I was an oboist.

Alan McLellan [00:05:23] As he was, right?

Celeste Headlee [00:05:25] Yes, he was. And there's a piece that everybody plays in high school, which is "Korean Folksong." And there's this infamous piece in “Korean Folksong” where you have to trill from a B-flat, which is impossible. Nobody can see me, but you have to use your pinky finger of your right hand to try and trill, which is ridiculous. So, Grandfather never wanted to create, write something that couldn't be played. He wanted to find the heart of an instrument and allow that instrument to sing. And I also and, you know, obviously I'm biased, but I think he was probably the best orchestrator that America has produced so far. He knew how to play an orchestra. He couldn't play piano. It was the one instrument in the orchestra he didn't know how to play. But he knew how to play the orchestra like an instrument itself. So yeah, there is, there's just a craftsmanship and an artistry to the way different sounds arise from an ensemble and then fade into the background. He always seems to capture the heart, the core of an instrument's sound for whatever that particular melody is calling for.

Alan McLellan [00:06:36] And how does his music fit in the world of symphonic orchestras? And I mean, this is way too broad a question. But I think, you know, I'm just wondering, does he get pigeonholed in some ways, Avlana, that maybe he shouldn't?

Avlana Eisenberg [00:06:56] Well, one more remarkable thing, I think is until 1950, his First Symphony [Afro-American] was the most performed symphonic work by an American composer. So, it actually was performed by orchestras around the world.

Alan McLellan [00:07:09] So you you're saying by an American composer? Not by an African-American composer, by any American composer.

Avlana Eisenberg [00:07:16] Correct, exactly. That said, skip ahead to 2022. And this is the first that these selections, each of which is a gem in and of itself, has been recorded, right? So, I think that in a way, his Afro-American Symphony got a lot of notoriety and many, many people were exposed to it. But that was sort of it. And so much of his oeuvre has been neglected. And just, you know, just in thinking about the selections on this CD, there's so much variety to pick up. And what Celeste was saying, I mean, versatility just is a word that I think so encapsulates his music.

And, you know, from this luxuriating Summerland to a 51-second Fanfare that's just boisterous and exciting to this unbelievably deep, compelling Violin Suite that just takes us across the range of human emotions, and the way he incorporates jazz and blues idioms and all of this incredible orchestral color. So, I think that his emotional range is like none other. I do think, though, throughout the years, that he has been pigeonholed just because so little of his music has actually been played and been discovered.

Alan McLellan [00:08:33] Yeah, there's probably socio-cultural studies you could do about how symphony orchestras have chosen that symphony as kind of an emblem of something rather than necessarily for its value. I don't know. Does that ring true at all? I mean, you know, they're looking for, well, here's an Afro-American Symphony, so we'll put that on. Does that...?

Avlana Eisenberg [00:08:59] Well, to be clear, I think that symphony is brilliant. I've heard it performed a number of times, including recently by the L.A. Philharmonic as part of a youth concert. And it's so effective. So, I think it's fantastic, of course, and that symphony should continue to be programmed. No doubt. It's so rich and varied and accessible. But there's also so much else.

Alan McLellan [00:09:19] Right. I don't mean to take away from it. I'm just thinking, you know, that people think, well, we've done that. It's a good piece, you know, and that's our contribution to playing music by African-American composers.

Celeste Headlee [00:09:32] If I can jump in here for just a second, I think what you're saying is that, do people pick this so that they can check off their box of “we've played a Black composer?” Absolutely. And the truth of that is the matter that Grandfather is programed in February more than any other month, which, to me, is a crime. That's just ridiculous. And do they play the Afro-American Symphony because that's their way of putting something in the program that checks their diversity box, and shows that they're not just playing John Williams and Bach and Brahms and all the other dead white guys, as the saying goes? I absolutely do believe that.

Alan McLellan [00:10:07] John Williams is still going, of course, but... [laughs]

Celeste Headlee [00:10:10] Yes. Sorry, I didn't mean to prematurely kill off John Williams, but as Avlana is saying, there's lots of music out there that's not, you know, and even during his lifetime, he was criticized by a number of critics. Any time he wrote something that wasn't "Black" in nature or anything that wasn't as, using the phrase of the 1950s and 60s, "negroid." They wanted him to stay in his lane, which he refused to do, which made it very difficult for him to get performances and recordings, which is one of the things that makes this recording so important, is it allows William Grant Still to speak from whatever lane he wants to speak from, which is important.

Alan McLellan [00:10:49] There's a fantastic range of things, more from his later periods, but some in his earlier as well. And can you talk about the progression that he went through, Avlana? Can you talk about that?

Avlana Eisenberg [00:11:03] So one of the revelations about this recording for me was getting to learn his Opus One for symphony orchestra, and this is his American Suite, which I received in manuscript form and got to pore over. And it's three movements and already you see the signs of what's to come. You see this broad range, from this lyrical love song in the first movement to the sprightly dance music, to these sustained, gorgeous brass tones of the third. And there's so much contrast and so much gorgeous writing for the orchestra, beautiful solo parts. And to me, that just sort of sets things up, and that's a piece that never had been performed before.

And then, you know, we go to two pieces like the Violin Suite, which are scored for full orchestra and start with this incredible, majestic sound. Everyone in the orchestra is called to play at their full capacity, double forte for all. And it's this large expansive concerto, really, I think it functions as a violin concerto.

And then getting to, for example, Threnody, which was written to commemorate the anniversary of Jean Sibelius, the renowned Finnish composer's 100th birthday. And it's just this poignant reminiscence, this reflection, I think, on the power of loss and memory. And so, it's just, it's the entire range. And I do think it's significant that these selections do trace his output, kind of, it's not chronological on the CD, but you do get a taste of these different parts of his life, his use of different groups of instruments and just kind of coming together to hopefully paint a broader picture of his compositional output.

Alan McLellan [00:13:04] What was it like to work with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra?

Avlana Eisenberg [00:13:07] It was remarkable. You know, we started the recording session on day one and this is the most recorded orchestra in the UK. So, when you get in front of them, the recording button, you know, we're recording from the beginning, there's no rehearsal or anything. And we started with the piece with the largest orchestration, which happens to be the Violin Suite and happens to be as I described it, and still very helpfully, and he does this throughout the scores, marks how he, something about the emotional energy, and so, here it's "majestically," and I'll never forget that downbeat and the entire forces of RSNO are playing double forte, but not in an oppressive, loud way, in just a perfectly refined mass of gorgeous sound. And for me, it was love at first sight. So, it was it was a remarkable experience. And to get to go on this journey with them. None of them had played this music before. It was my first time conducting these works. Zina had performed many of her pieces with piano. But for all of us, this was something brand new. And it was incredible to embark on this journey with such a phenomenal group of collaborators.

Alan McLellan [00:14:18] And Celeste, I think he really knew how to work in a studio. So, he knew the pressures of recording and the kinds of things that musicians needed to have, right?

Celeste Headlee [00:14:27] Yeah. I mean, he was the first Black person, Black man to conduct a radio orchestra with CBS. He was the first music director for Black Swan Records, which was the first Black-owned recording company in United States. He absolutely cut his teeth in recording studios, and he was always focused on the audience. In fact, he gave a number of speeches in which he criticized some of his contemporaries for not focusing on the audience, right? He was always focused on how it sounded to the people out in the seats. He gave a speech once that said, "the modern composer and his audience, or the modern composer and what audience?" Because he just felt like people left behind the people or talked down to the people who had bought tickets for the concert. So, for him, that sound from, you know, row ten, was the most important thing, what they came away with.

Alan McLellan [00:15:20] Yeah, I'm just so impressed with that. And it would speak to us in radio as well, right? I mean, you know, we need to think about the audience.

Celeste Headlee [00:15:31] Yeah.

Alan McLellan [00:15:32] Well, Avlana Eisenberg and Celeste Headlee, thank you so much for your time this morning. And I wish you all the best with this wonderful recording, Summerland, from Naxos, the music of William Grant Still, with Zina Schiff and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Celeste Headlee [00:15:49] Thank you.

Avlana Eisenberg [00:15:50] Thank you.

Alan McLellan is a host and producer for CRB.