Symphony’s sounds to fill Natchez

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Mississippi Symphony Orchestra will make a rare appearance in Natchez at 8 p.m. Thursday in the Natchez City Auditorium to perform works written by William Grant Still Jr.

Still was born in Wilkinson County in 1895. His father was a graduate of Alcorn College, the principal of a school in Gloster, and the leader of a brass band in Woodville. However, his father died shortly after he was born, and his mother took Still to live with her family in Little Rock, Ark.

Still studied at Wilberforce University and Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Early in his career he played in W.C. Handy’s Memphis band, and later turned the blues idiom into symphonic form. He was also an arranger with the Pace and Handy Music Company in New York City.

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Still played oboe in Eubie Blake’s “Original Shuffle Along Orchestra.” Then he became recording director for the Black Swan Phonograph Company, a company named after opera singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was born in Adams County and became known worldwide as the “Black Swan.”

Still was the orchestrator for a popular radio program called the “Deep River Hour.” As a composer, Still wrote operas, symphonies, tone poems, hymna, movie scores, ballet music and works for the piano, voice, organ and accordion.

His connections with Howard Hanson at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. and band leader Paul Whiteman gave Still avenues into the other side of the then-segregated world of music. Still broke many of those color barriers, particularly as a conductor.

The Mississippi Symphony will perform Still’s “Afro-American Symphony” in full Thursday night.

They will also give the professional premiere of Still’s tone poem “The Deserted Plantation.” Also on the program are Still’s “Plain Chant for American” and the hymn “All That I Am.” Still’s music is pleasing, not discordant.

Tickets are $10 in advance at the Natchez Visitor Reception Center, and $12 at the door of the Natchez City Auditorium on Jefferson Street before the performance.

The Thursday performance is part of a four-day celebration of Still which will begin with the dedication of a Blues Trail marker at the Wilkinson County Courthouse in Woodville at 11 a.m. Wednesday.

A three-day symposium at the Natchez Convention Center on Still’s music and the importance of music and the arts in public schools will begin Thursday morning. Still’s daughter, Judith Anne Still, will be present for all these events.

Everyone who reads this should not miss this special opportunity to hear the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra perform these major works by William Grant Still.

Tell your best friends.

David S. Dreyer is a resident of Adams County.