- Epoch: An American Dance Symphony, for orchestra & women's chorus
George Frederick McKay: Epoch - An American Dance Symphonyby John Nardolillo
Seattle-based George Frederick McKay is one of many American composers whose works have been revived by the indefatigable Naxos label, and there are points of interest in nearly all of them. The grandiosely titled "Epoch: An American Dance Symphony," composed in 1935, originally involved dancers, lighting, and stagecraft. Those elements might enhance the piece, and indeed this example of American Gesamtkunstwerk would be worth attempting in that way. It's an ambitious piece, but it is performed here by a university orchestra and chorus, and the whole shebang would seem to be within reach of a good university music and theater program. One can understand why "Epoch" has been forgotten as a piece of absolute music: there just seems to be too much packed into it. The subtitle "An American Dance Symphony" is only intermittently applicable to the music. The four movements -- "Symbolic Portrait," "Pastoral," "Westward!," and "Machine Age Blues" -- seem to indicate historical themes, but then the listener is introduced to a detailed program, in the manner of the program symphony of the nineenth century, that links episodes in the music to the careers or simply the literary themes of four poets: Edgar Allan Poe (whose name is misspelled in the booklet), Sidney Lanier, Walt Whitman, and Carl Sandburg, respectively. The problem with these multiple overarching concepts is that it's hard to make all the layers fit together, and the listener who wants to follow the work at the local level is going to be doing a lot of page-flipping. The opening movement wanders, the western scenes are not the equal of Copland's, the negative vision of jazz is a bit annoying, and the invention in the music is distinguished more by abundance than by consistency. All this said, the work's energy results in plenty of memorable moments. The use of a wordless women's chorus in the second movement is one, and here the University of Kentucky Women's Choir acquits itself as well as could be desired. The University of Kentucky Symphony is impressive in a work that, while designed for a collegiate environment, exposes every instrument in the orchestra at one time or another, and the university's concert hall is unusually good acoustically. There's enough here to make you want to hear and see the work as it was originally conceived, and to find out whether the different aspects reinforce and clarify each other. Is there anyone who remembers the original production? Dance is only imperfectly notated, and records of stage and lighting design are usually sketchy.
- Release Date:
- Naxos American
Performance CreditsJohn Nardolillo Primary Artist
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Epoch was conceived as a ground-breaking modern dance piece for the American scene which was in social turmoil following the "Roaring Twenties." It incorporates the visages of four famous poets: Poe, Lanier, Whitman and Sandburg to musically illustrate the themes of romantic madness, pastoral beauty, westward expansion and industrial chaos; all elements of past and present American society. McKay's work is expressed in dark and light motifs, with a dire warning concerning the future, as it was constucted on the eve of the rise of the terrors of WWII. Especially frantic is the final movement, "Machine Age Blues" which reminds one of the era of Kurt Weill, and the movie "Metropolis" in an energetic and sardonic sense. The dance was produced with colorful costumes and masks for the large dance ensemble and utilized the latest in lighting and stagecraft techniques in four performances over two years the mid-1930's at the Seattle campus of the University of Washington. McKay conducted for these performances, which were attended by high society types, students, university faculty, and enthusiastic media representatives. For a a very favorable review, refer to Richard Freed (New York Times contributor) at soundstage.com. The critic David Hurwitz also has recommended this giant 60 minute piece, which includes a chorus in the beautiful pastoral movement.