Still conference was excellent event

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Those who attended the William Grant Still concert by the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra at the City Auditorium recently know that they got their money’s worth.

The second movement of Still’s Suite for Violin and Orchestra performed by substitute violinist Fritz Gearhart was alone worth the price of admission, as was James Sterrett-Bryant’s wonderful baritone voice in Plain-Chant for America and Herbert Woodward Martin’s interpretation of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poems during Still’s Afro-American Symphony.

However, there was much more during the three-day conference at the Convention Center which featured performances of many of the lesser-known compositions of William Grant Still, who was born in Wilkinson County, in 1895. Unfortunately, the price-tag on those performances put them out-of-reach for many Natchez citizens.

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There were more performances by the lead members of the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra with a premiere of the string quartets in the Folk Suites written by Still. James Sterrett-Bryant also gave additional performances at the conference with Still’s arrangement of spirituals including the pointed “Ah Gotta Home in-a Dat Rock.”

Everett N. Jones III played with great feeling some piano pieces by Still that caught my attention even though the piano was one of the few instruments that Still did not play.

However, it was the duet of Louise Toppin and Anthony Turner singing “Listen Mary” from Still’s opera Highway One which made me realize that William Grant Still was indeed far ahead of his time in that it foreshadowed the duet in Bernstein’s West Side Story known as “There’s a Place for Us.”

I cannot avoid complimenting the oboe, bassoon and piano performance of the group Camerata Del Sol from Corpus Christi, Texas. Oboe was Still’s first instrument which he played in Handy’s Memphis Band, and Evelyn McCarty made a difficult instrument seem easy.

A swing group with a Latin flavor named El Salon Negro from New York City had me tapping my feet. It included a flute, soprano, piano and string bass.

The ballet-tumbling performances of talented young people from Sunflower County highlighted the importance of teaching the arts in public schools. I watched one young man in the group pay rapt attention to the preceding performance of El Salon Negro, and could see the wheels moving in his mind. Too bad there weren’t more young people there.

Of course I missed 2/3 of the presentations because there were three concurrent sessions at any one time with nearly 40 sessions in all involving 50 presenters.

There was also an opening presentation of photographs of William Grant Still’s life by his daughter, Judith Anne Still, the woman behind this entire tribute conference in honor of her father. Ms. Still has a very positive, spiritual attitude about her father’s life as well as a saucy wit about some of the obstacles that he faced.

What one comes away with from these wonderful performances is not only the sheer beauty of Still’s compositions, but the vast repertoire which he created including seven operas, five symphonies and especially a host of pieces written for all kinds of instruments and voice, many of which are simply impressionistic musical gems.

Thanks also goes to Ms. Still’s daughter, Lisa Headlee, for her organizational abilities in bring this vast array of talent to Natchez. In my five or more years of attending literary, cultural, historical and musical events in Natchez, this one simply excelled.

The shame is that no one seemed to see its dimensions coming. It was one of those events which Natchez attracts, but does not support with adequate attendance. Pricing of the conference events also made attendance at all but the symphonic concert prohibitive to many.

Nevertheless, this three-day conference and symphonic performance will go down as one of the great events which took place as part of the continuing pageant which is Natchez. One might even say, “Not since Jenny Lind………”

David S. Dreyer is a resident of Adams County.