GILLIS: Symphony "X" ("The Big D").
Shindig. Encore Concerto (Alan Feinberg, pianist). Symphony No. 5
For years I have treasured a Reader's Digest recording of "Ranch House Party" by American composer Don Gillis (1912-1978) from an orchestral suite Portrait of a Frontier Town, played by the "Beecham Promenade Orchestra" conducted by "Gilbert Vinter." This originally was issued in one of those super-budget multiple-LP sets, later included in a 5-CD set called Classics for Joy, now unfortunately out-of-print. This dazzling, raucous 2:53 of music is is a crowd-pleaser for sure, one of the finest production examples of the legendary team of Charles Gerhardt and Kenneth Wilkinson -- I often have used it to show off my sound system.
The latest Schwann/Opus lists no recordings of music by Don Gillis. In the early days of LP London recorded several of his works with the composer conducting: Symphony No. 7, Frontier Town, The Man Who Invented Music, The Alamo and Symphony 5 1/2, all produced by John Culshaw in 1950. These well-balanced mono recordings have long been out of print -- all would fit comfortably on a single CD and would be welcome as an historic reissue. Albany/Troy helps alleviate the dearth of Gillis recordings with this fine CD containing not only Symphony 5 1/2 but premiere recordings of three other works.
Born in Missouri, Gillis' instruments were trumpet and trombone. In his youth he formed a jazz band for which he prepared arrangements and wrote music. His family moved to Fort Worth, Texas when he was 17, where he studied composition and orchestration at North Texas State University. After a two-year period as staff arranger and producer for a local radio station, he became a member of the NBC Chicago affiliate. A year later he was brought to New York as chief producer and writer for the NBC Symphony Orchestra concerts, staying with the organization until they disbanded in 1954.
Over the years Gillis held a variety of administrative musical positions, but his prime interest was the NBC Symphony where he worked with Arturo Toscanini. When the network decided to abandon their orchestra it was Gillis who led efforts to reorganize the group as the Symphony of the Air. His catalog is quite large including 12 "symphonies," 7 operas, two piano concertos, various other works for solo instrument and orchestra, cantatas, several works for narrator and orchestra, numerous tone poems and orchestral suites plus six string quartets, three woodwind quintets and a large amount of music for band.
His music is always colorfully orchestrated with a heavy accent on brass, and he had a knack for imaginative titles for his works. Often his music is quite similar to his contemporary, Morton Gould (1913-1996), and there is a trace of GrofÈ's "On the Trail" in Episode V of the ballet Shindig, the 8 sections of which are simply identified as "Episodes." This is a pleasant spoof of old-time B-Western movies with a cast of unlikely characters -- and appropriate lively music. "Symphony X" ("The Big D") is the composer's last "symphony," with four short movements each a descriptive image of the city of Dallas: "All-American City," "Requiem for a Hero," (remembering JFK's assassination), "Conventioneer" and "Cotton Bowl."
The Encore Concerto is the first of Gillis' two piano concertos. It seems some of the composer's pianistic friends wanted a new short concerto that could be played at concerts along with another of the shorter piano/orchestra works. To Gillis' dismay no one seemed content with it, the concerto had only one performance, in Corpus Christi, Texas, before being shelved. Supposedly the "musicality" of the work was never questioned. However the fact remains that this is prosaic music at best without memorable tunes and little opportunity for virtuoso display, not even at the level of Leroy Anderson's dismal attempt at a piano concerto. Alan Feinberg does as much as can be done with the solo part.
Symphony 5 1/2, composed in 1946, is subtitled "A Symphony for Fun," and it is just that. Considered to be Gillis' finest work, it is strongly influenced by jazz and folk music with four brief, colorful movements: "Perpetual Emotion," "Spiritual?," Scherzophrenia," and "Conclusion!" Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops premiered the work in May 1947 with Arturo Toscanini conducting the radio premiere with the NBC Symphony in September of the same year.
Thanks to Albany/Troy for making this music available even though it surely isn't in the class of music by major American composers. It is always pleasant to hear, brilliantly orchestrated, often quite clever. Stuart Triff's notes sum up Don Gillis by saying..."he wrote 'feel good' music to make people happy. For this uniquely American composer, every night was a Saturday night hoedown!" David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony play splendidly and have the advantage of warm acoustics of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Gregory K. Squires has provided exemplary engineering, the only debit being a too close-up piano in the concerto. Highly recommended.