Symphonic Legacies

Saturday, March 11, 2023 • 7:30 p.m.
Shorecrest Performing Arts Center (15343 25th Ave NE, Shoreline)

Harmonia Orchestra
William White, conductor
Quinn Mason, conductor


William Grant Still (1895–1978)
Poem for Orchestra

Quinn Mason (*1996)
Symphony No. 5 (“Harmonia”) [world premiere]

— intermission —

William Grant Still
Threnody: In Memory of Jan Sibelius

Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52

About the Concert

Quinn Mason, a young conductor-composer who is taking the world by storm, reunites with the Harmonia Orchestra to present the world premiere of his new symphony, written expressly for our musicians. Mason will be in attendance for the premiere and will also conduct our orchestra in William Grant Still’s gripping Poem for Orchestra.

Mason was very much part of the dialogue in designing this program. When asked what a good pairing might be for his new symphony, he suggested the music of Jean Sibelius. Come hear how the influence of this Finnish master continues to redound to contemporary composers today.

Plan to arrive early for a 6:30 p.m. pre-concert talk featuring music director William White in conversation with composer Quinn Mason.

Health & Safety

Harmonia musicians are all fully vaccinated and those performing without masks undergo testing prior to each performance. We ask that in-person audience members be fully vaccinated. Masking requirements for audience members will be made on a concert-by-concert basis and communicated within 48 hours of the performance. (These policies are subject to change throughout the season based on local health guidelines and mandates, as well as the policies of the venues at which we perform.)

Program Notes

William Grant Still
Poem for Orchestra

Still was born May 11, 1895, in Woodville, Mississippi, and died December 3, 1978, in Los Angeles. He composed this work in Los Angeles during the first half of 1944, completing it on June 6 of that year. Rudolph Ringwall led the Cleveland Orchestra in the first performance on December 7, 1944. The score requires 3 flutes (doubling 2 piccolos), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, gong, glockenspiel), celesta, harp and strings.

Widely regarded during much of his lifetime as “dean of Afro-American composers,” William Grant Still moved from Mississippi to Little Rock, Arkansas, with his mother, an English teacher, after his father died when he was an infant. He began studying the violin at the relatively belated age of 15. After graduating from high school as valedictorian at 16, he enrolled in pre-med courses at Wilberforce University in Ohio, but became preoccupied by music and transferred to Oberlin, where he took composition lessons with George Andrews. He would later study privately with George Whitefield Chadwick in Boston and with Edgar Varèse in New York.

After service in World War I, Still landed in Harlem, working as an arranger and playing in pit orchestras. He received his big break as an orchestral composer in 1931 when Howard Hanson and the Rochester Philharmonic premiered his Symphony No. 1 (“Afro-American”), which for a time would become the most-performed symphony by any American. In 1934, he moved to Los Angeles, initially working in the film industry, and would reside there for the rest of his life. Still’s catalog would eventually encompass nearly 200 pieces of music, including nine operas and four more symphonies.

“In 1944, Erich Leinsdorf, then conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, wrote to commission a new orchestral work from me,” Still remarked. “He placed no limitations on the kind of work I should write, nor was there any specification as to time limit. The commission was made possible by the Fynette H. Kulas Original American Composers Fund, created by Mr. and Mrs. E.J. Kulas, who are both trustees of the Cleveland Orchestra.

“At the time, my mind had already been turning toward a new orchestral work, so the commission came at an opportune moment. I determined to express in music to the best of my ability the spiritual re-birth of mankind through a drawing closer to God. Accordingly, I wrote the Poem for Orchestra, and after it was finished, I asked my wife to write a short poem which would express in words what I tried to express in music:

Soul-sick and weary,
Man stands on the rim of a desolate world.
Then from the embers of a dying past
Springs an immortal hope.
Resolutely evil is uprooted and thrust aside;
A shining new temple stands
Where once greed and lust for power flourished.
Earth is young again and on the wings of its re-birth
Man draws closer to God.
  — Verna Arvey

“The Poem for Orchestra is in three sections. The first, expressing the desolation of the world, is dissonant. The second section, a development of material that may be found in the opening section, is more like an energetic scherzo, signifying the building for a new world. The third section has in it completely new musical material — and this time the harmonies are consonant — signifying a spiritual re-birth and an exaltation in the approach to the Divine Force. At the very end of the work, there are some remainders of the opening thematic material, but these do not come with the same desolate feeling that they had in their first appearance.”

A Plain Dealer critic reviewing the Cleveland premiere found the work “deeply moving,” while Musical America deemed it “indeed beautiful, with distinctive themes, clever orchestration, lovely lyrical passages and stirring, forthright vitality.” Artur Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic took it up in April 1946, followed by the Dallas Symphony in February 1948 and the Chicago Symphony under Rafael Kubelik in November 1950. Reviewing a 1979 performance at USC, Daniel Cariaga of the Los Angeles Times called the Poem for Orchestra “a heroic, lushly textured work which uses the entire resources of the orchestra tellingly, an American Heldenleben, if you will, but one compressed into less than 10 minutes. Its Hansonian idiom and extreme attractiveness, two qualities once again acceptable in our concert halls, make it worthy of a currency previously withheld.”

— Jeff Eldridge