HAILSTORK: Symphony No. 1 (1988). Three Spirituals (2005). An American Port of Call (1985). Fanfare on Amazing Grace (2003). Whitman's Journey: I. Launch Out on Endless Seas (2005)*.
*Kevin Deas (baritone); *Virginia Symphony Chorus; Virginia Symphony Orchestra/Jo Ann Falletta.
Naxos 8.559722 TT: 59:08.
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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 performances of individual movements. I don't know how many he's written so far. He sets excerpts from the 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 of the 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 of 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 in spite 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)