Recent CDs: A Vietnam opera and Afro-American composer William Grant Still

An all-Still disk

In his lifetime William Grant Still (1895-1978) was referred to as the “Dean of Afro-American Composers.” In a future United Socialist States of America, Still’s works would all be recorded, performed live and broadcast frequently, his five symphonies and at least some of his nine operas a part of the standard repertoire. The USPS would certainly by now have issued a postage stamp in his honor.

But more and more, as Black composers matter, his works are enjoying a new renaissance, as are the compositions of Florence Price, so terribly neglected in her day—who also merits a stamp!

Hugh Thompson, 1966 / US Army (public domain)

Summerland is the newest CD on Naxos to feature Still in nine compositions (13 tracks) that have never previously been recorded, though some of it, admittedly, has appeared in other instrumentations. Randall Goosby, for example, has recorded the three-movement Violin Suite with piano accompaniment. On the present all-Still CD it crops up again, but with a full orchestra backing up the outstanding violinist Zina Schiff.

With Schiff as the featured soloist, a California-born artist who actually met William Grant Still at rehearsals of the Peter Merenblum California Junior Symphony of Los Angeles, the album has another distinguishing feature: The Royal Scottish National Orchestra heard here is under the baton of Avlana Eisenberg, Schiff’s daughter! Maestra Eisenberg leads the Boston Chamber Symphony, which had previously produced a video of Still’s jaunty railroad workers composition “Can’t You Line ’Em” (the first track on the CD), well worth watching for its photographic and biographical content as much as for the music itself (and Ms. Schiff can also be seen playing with the orchestra).

The second track is the title composition, described as the composer’s “delicate depiction of the serenity and purity of Heaven,” a gently flowing, sentimental vision with Hollywood overtones, followed by the “jazzy romp” that will surely put a smile on any listener’s face, “Quit Dat Fool’nish,” originally written for piano solo, then as a piece for saxophone and orchestra, and here for orchestra alone. A “Pastorela” based on the California landscape features Schiff in Still’s lushly masterful writing for the violin that eschews virtuosistic showiness and ends on a curious questioning note.

The American Suite in three movements dates from 1918, and was Still’s first orchestral score, composed as a student at Ohio’s Wilberforce University. Its three movements—“Indian Love Song,” “Danse” and “Lament”—suggest the musical conservatism of his training. The 1945 “Fanfare for the 99th Fighter Squadron” lasts less than a minute, perhaps inspired by Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” but nevertheless has an interesting history, dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. Conductor Leopold Stokowski premiered it at the Hollywood Bowl on July 22, 1945, to celebrate the end of the European war.

Two other purely orchestral works on the album are “Serenade” and “Threnody: In Memory of Jean Sibelius,” both written in Still’s pleasant, plush and decidedly anti-modern idiom. While it cannot correctly be claimed that each work on this CD is an enduring masterpiece, the project is bigger than the sum of its parts, a loving and honorable tribute to one of America’s finest composers.

William Great Still: Summerland
Avlana Eisenberg, conductor
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
with solo violinist Zina Schiff
Naxos American Classics 8-559867
Playing time: 60:03
2022 (recorded 2018)

*

My Lai—the opera

It was a revelation to me that Moe Asch’s Folkways label, acquired by the Smithsonian Institution after his death, was still issuing new releases documenting “music, spoken word, instruction, and sounds from around the world,” much less a modern opera. This one is quite impressive and heartbreaking, and combines the sonorities of a renowned string quartet, the Kronos, with a solo singing voice (Rinde Eckert) and performer Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ on t’rung, dàn bàu, and dàn tranh, native Vietnamese string and percussion instruments.

Mass grave for 12 victims of the My Lai massacre, March 16, 1968. My Lai memorial site, near Quang Ngai, Vietnam, June 2009 / photo by Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Appropriately so, because this one hour and eleven minute composition by Jonathan Berger, with a libretto by Harriet Scott Chessman, is a trip into the mind and experience of U.S. Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson who first reported, then tried everything in his power, as a helicopter pilot, to stop the My Lai massacre by his fellow American troops on the morning of March 16, 1968. He landed his copter between the men of Charlie Company, average age 20, and the civilians, but could not prevent the murder—on official order—of 504 innocent civilians, none of whom had put up any resistance. The generous 80-page My Lai CD booklet lists all their names as a permanent memorial. The tally includes more than 200 children under the age of 12, and a couple of dozen in their 70s and 80s.

Although Lieut. William Calley was the only American soldier found guilty—after mighty attempts on the government’s part to suppress the incident— he served only three years and four months of a life sentence, under house arrest. As a witness to the atrocity, Hugh Thompson became a passionate advocate for justice: his 1970 testimony was critical for the investigation and prosecution. Thirty years after the massacre he and his two helicopter mates, Lawrence (Larry) Colburn and posthumously Glenn Andreotta, were awarded the Soldier’s Medal, and in 1999 Thompson and Colburn also received the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award.

Told in anguished free-associative lyrics, the opera takes us to a hospital room in the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Pineville, La., where Thompson is living out his last days. He died in January 2006. In several scenes, recorded on eight tracks on the CD, he relives the ghastliness of the events he witnessed, and we see what he sees, both on the ground decades before, and inside his tormented mind now. Rinde Eckert is a high tenor with an impressive capacity for evoking terror and confusion in his demanding vocal delivery.

For someone of my age, who spent his 20s protesting against the Vietnam War, this opera brought back so many recollections of the long struggle to get the U.S. to quit this criminal adventure. In 2019 I was able to make a pilgrimage to Vietnam, and I was so gratified to see how this poor nation has recovered from the war despite all its never-to-be-forgotten losses. On my trip was a man, slightly younger than myself, who was making a pilgrimage of his own. Terry had last seen the country as an American recruit, age 19. It brought tears to our eyes to watch him as he met counterpart Vietnamese soldiers half a century later, embraced them and exchanged stories. I believe the trip served as a way of more or less forgiving himself for what the 19-year-old inside him had done to this beautiful land and people. In Danang, where he had landed on the beach so long ago, he looked out at the tall buildings, the tourist resorts, the bustling shops, neon lights and promenades and said, “It’s all different. Only the sea is the same.”

Monument of the My Lai Massacre, 2013 / JvL from Netherlands, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The musical flavor of the opera is tinged throughout with the Vietnamese component to the score, the keening sound of lamentation floating above it all. The string quartet often has a harrowing “pictorial” function, when it summons up the buzzing, whirling noises of Thompson’s chopper, while other loud, sudden bursts replicate automatic gunfire attack. Berger also incorporates musical themes from the Jewish Yom Kipur service, the familiar “Kol Nidre” melody that seeks forgiveness for sins of omission and commission.

A fascinating choice in this unusual libretto is the protagonist’s hallucination that he’s on some cheesy television game show with an überpatriot of a host and matching audience. The Emcee asks him, “Confronting American soldiers on the ground, what did you order your crew to do? You have 30 seconds.” Thompson starts describing what he saw when a buzzer sounds. The Emcee: “Time’s up. So sorry, Officer. What did you order your crew to do? ‘Blow them away. Blow those bastards away’ was the correct answer.” Our history—our flaws, our mistakes, our tragedies, our racism—wiped off the blackboard of history, canceled in the construction of a national white supremacist consensus.

A music lover can be grateful for being able to hear this important American opera on CD, “a gripping affair, beginning to end,” according to the New York Times. It would be many times more powerful staged live in a theater, which indeed it has been in a number of cities. An amazing 16-page first-person account by My Lai orphan Trân Van Dúc has to be read. “My pain and anger,” she writes, are “not aimed at only those who took the lives of my family members, but at those who have covered up mistakes years after and have refused to say anything to me.”

An emotionally wrenching 65-minute news analysis Four Hours in My Lai: Anatomy of a Massacre can be viewed here. Hugh Thompson appears about 30 minutes in.

Jonathan Berger and Harriet Scott Chessman
My Lai
Kronos Quartet, Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ, Rinde Eckert
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings SFW 40251
Playing time: 71:00
2022


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. His latest project is translating the nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, the first volumes available from International Publishers NY.

Comments

comments