July 9, 2022: The Amarillo Symphony in an American Celebration


Stilian Kirov Conductor and William Hagan Soloist after Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, June 24, 2022

On June 24, Stilian Kirov, candidate for conductor and artistic director of the Amarillo Symphony, led a program celebrating American composers and America. Kirov and the symphony were joined by talented William Hagan as a featured violin soloist.

The symphony performed two works by American composers: William Grant Still and Samuel Barber. The program concluded with the most famous work written about America, Symphony No.9 by Antonin Dvorak.

The works of William Grant Still are enjoying a long-overdo Renaissance. A prodigious composer of over two hundred works, he holds a number of firsts: the first black composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra; the first black to conduct a major symphony orchestra; the first black composer to have an opera performed by a major company and the first to have an opera performed on television.

His creativity is all the more phenomenal when viewed in the racist context of Jim Crow America. Now the work of this American musical icon is enjoying a recrudescence in symphonies and classical musical platforms across the country. Perhaps that says something about who we were and what we’re becoming.

The short selection, Mother and Child, is an orchestration of one section of his Suite for Violin an Piano. The first half is a tender and engaging sequence of tetrads, with the second half changing tune and tone, and becoming more playful.

The orchestra and Kirov were in total sync during this work. Should Amarillo be so fortunate to have Stilian selected as the artistic director, audiences can expect to hear more of Still’s work.

Samuel Barber wrote his Violin Concerto as a commission for soap magnate Samuel Fels, specifically to feature Fels’ violinist nephew Iso Briselli. Briselli had issues with Barber’s first two movements, but went ballistic on the third movement, denouncing it as too difficult and demanding changes. Barber refused to alter his composition, and refunded half of his commission.

The protestations of Briselli notwithstanding, Barber’s work has, since its premier in 1930 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, become permanently ensconced in the concert violinist’s repertoire.

And, the stars aligned for the Amarillo Symphony and its audience as Kirov secured the services of William Hagan as soloist. A native of Salt Lake City, Hagan brought his own Stradivarius as well as a “Devil’s Violinist” ethos to make this work bedazzle with musical pyrotechnics. Some claim to see smoke coming from the Strad, which would not have been a good thing. The thunderous standing ovation for the soloist and orchestra definitely was.

The final work on the program was Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” by Antonin Dvorak. Though written by a Czech about America, Americans have, from the beginning, embraced this work as their own, and The New World Symphony has been a treasured icon in symphnic Americana, played in high schools and halls of the philharmonic orchestras.

Though most of the work was composed while Dvorak was in New York directing the newly-founded National Conservatory of Music, tiny Spillville, Iowa claims part of the credit. Dvorak spent the summer of 1893 in this community of Bohemian immigrants. There he did some composing, but is remembered, anecdotally, for carrying around a bucket of beer, a common practice in that place. Perhaps that has something to do with the name of the town.

Kirov orchestrated just the right dynamic build up to the Finale, whose stunning opening reminds one of Beethoven’s Fifth, or Jaws. The brass, particularly the French horns, can overplay the melody line, but that wasn’t the case in this movement. And the fortes were frequently broken by softer interludes, to build to a powerful, resounding conclusion. There’s an Argh! in the final phrase that has always inspired Americans to claim this piece as their own.

This review goes to publish just prior to the “Big Reveal” of the symphony’s new conductor. If it is Stilian Kirov, the citizens of Amarillo will enjoy a new world of musical enrichment.

Though the arts season has officially come to a close, there’s still a lot to offer in the arts until the Missa Solemnis in late August.

For these reasons, we assert, just as confidently,

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!

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