Entertainer: MSO 04

The Missoula Symphony Orchestra rehearses with new music director Julia Tai, Feb. 6, 2021, at Dennison Theatre in Missoula.

“Our American Voices,” the latest masterworks concert from the Missoula Symphony Orchestra, will show “how diverse and colorful our combined American voices are,” said Julia Tai, the music director.

While often the term “American composer” is associated with Gershwin or Bernstein, she said, there are a lot of other voices that are an important part of the country’s repertoire.

The centerpiece is “Afro-American Symphony,” by William Grant Still, the first Black composer to have his work performed by a major orchestra. The contemporary opener, “Strum,” by Jessie Montgomery, is a folk-inflected work inspired by her New York neighborhood. Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto in the middle of the program represents a bridge from European tradition to a distinctively modern American one, Tai said.

The guest soloist for the concert is Yesong Sophie Lee, who will take the spotlight during the concerto.

“We have all of this wonderful culture and music that is accessible to us, and to be able to hear a program as diverse and beautiful as this one — I think it will make all of us proud,” Tai said.

William Grant Still

Still’s Symphony No. 1, the masterworks selection, pairs Black musical themes with the full force of the symphony for a tuneful and beautiful whole, Tai said.

“People could sing the tune going out of the hall after hearing the piece,” she said.

According to his official website run by his family, williamgrantstill.com, Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi in 1895 and grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. His father died when he was very young.

He cultivated a unique career — he played in orchestras led by W.C. Handy and Artie Shaw among others, and continued his studies with George Chadwick and Edgard Varese. Still was the first Black composer to conduct a major orchestra — in 1936, he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert of his works at the Hollywood Bowl.

In his symphony, he sought to write a piece that would “represent African American music” within classical music in time when those worlds were segregated, Tai said.

He drew on spirituals, jazz and blues and put them in a symphonic form, audible in the woodwinds and trumpet solos. (The MSO had to find a tenor banjo player for one section.)

While the symphony was popular at the time of its release, it fell into obscurity until a more recent revival. 

“Because of the cultural awakening and all the things that’s happening in our society, people are starting to look at some of those repertoires that have been ignored, so this piece has come back,” Tai said.

Repertoire, and looking at who gets performed and who doesn't, has become more intentional in recent years. she said.

"We were at the moment where we could go back and say, 'No, this is music that needs to be played, and needs to be heard,'" she said.

Jessie Montgomery

Montgomery, a composer and violinist based in New York, represents the present as an important new voice in classical.

She originally wrote “Strum” for her group, the Catalyst Quartet, and has since expanded it for a larger string ensemble. She has described how many types of music she could hear in her neighborhood (jazz, folk, Latin and more) have influenced her composing, Tai said.

“She’s bringing all of those different elements into classical music,” she said.

The strumming is literal, just like you’d hear in a folk song. The melody reads as having a folk simplicity but is written in mixed meters which poses technical challenges to the players. Tai said.

Samuel Barber

Lee, the guest soloist, on Violin Concerto, is a teenage prodigy from Seattle, who performed a work at age 10 or 11 with an ensemble Tai led.

She won the Menuhin International Junior Violin Competition when she was only 12 years old.

“To be so detailed in your phrasing is very unusual for a young person,” Tai said. 

She has an impeccable technique and a vocal, flowing way of phrasing that’s natural and detail-oriented, like hearing an old master, Tai said.

Within the program, Barber represents a more traditional strain of classical music coming from the European tradition yet the “sound world” he developed is very American, she said, such as his open chords with a soaring melody over the top.

The first part has a Romantic feel that gradually gives way to dissonance and rhythmic drive, which could “represent the evolution of classical music in America” from the more Romantic period and moving a little toward the modern, she said.

Coming up

The symphony has one more Masterworks concert coming up on April 9-10, “Spirit, Song and Remembrance." The Family Concert, “Once Upon a Symphony,” is set for Sunday, May 1, after it was bumped from a planned February date due to the omicron surge.