This recording is the first volume in an emerging three-album series devoted to twentieth-century composers of African descent, a project inspired by CBS Records’ landmark Black Composers Series of the 1970s. Paul Freeman, artistic director and featured conductor for the long out-of-print CBS series, conducts the Chicago Sinfonietta for Cedille’s African Heritage Symphonic Series. Dominique-René de Lerma, chief consultant and program annotator for the CBS series, is writing the program notes for Cedille’s series. This recording was funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to the Chicago Sinfonietta.
Best known for his serious choral masterpiece, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is represented by two works in a lighter vein. "Danse Negre" from African Suite sounds like a rousing overture evocative of Broadway musicals of a later era. The work was inspired by the writing of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the celebrated African-American poet whom the composer knew and admired. Coleridge-Taylor’s charming, often balletic Petite Suite de Concert, Op. 77 was championed by England’s counterpart to Arthur Fiedler, Sir Dan Godfrey.
Nigerian Fela Sowande’s African Suite (three selections) from 1930, scored for string orchestra and harp, incorporates traditional Nigerian melodies and the influence of Ghanian composer Ephiraim Amu. The suite’s first movement, aptly named "Joyful Day", is lovely and energetic, with a big-hearted opening that brings to mind Copland’s Appalachian Spring from 1944. Sowande was also an accomplished organist, schooled in the works of Bach and Handel, which perhaps accounts for the fugal orchestral writing in the "Nostalgia" movement. The delectable, folkloric movement titled "Akinla" adapts a melody from West African "highlife", a spirited dance style that mixes African, Caribbean, and Western sonorities.
William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1, "Afro-American", evolved from blue-based sketches he wrote during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance while arranging for jazz ensembles. Freeman’s sultry, swinging interpretation is several minutes faster than competing CD versions. Freeman, who worked directly with Still on performances of the First Symphony and other works, says Still "always emphasized the ’flow’ of the music, and faster tempos were often the natural outcome."