November 2008

McKay - Epoch: An American Dance Symphony
University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra and Women’s Choir; John Nardolillo cond.
Naxos 8.559330
Format: CD
Released: 2008

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

Naxos has given us three earlier CDs of music by George Frederick McKay (1899-1970) of the American Northwest; this one brings us something quite different: not exactly a ballet, as the title might suggest, but an hour-long Depression-era multimedia work combining music and dance to represent the American character in references to four venerated poets. Edgar Allan Poe is the focus of the darkly dramatic opening movement; Sidney Lanier is evoked in a Pastoral with a wordless female chorus; for Walt Whitman, somewhat uncharacteristically, we have cowboy ballads in "Westward!"; Carl Sandburg is limned in jazz (in which McKay had early performing experience) in "Machine Age Blues."

This sprawling piece is perhaps longer than it needs to be, and is not burdened by an excess of subtlety -- but it is clearly from the heart, and is a valuable document of its time. McKay conducted the premiere, in 1935, at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he taught. Naxos’s revival makes good use of the very capable and committed forces of the University of Kentucky in Lexington, under a conductor who understands the score’s strengths and limitations. The sound quality is well tailored to the musical content, and the documentation, by the composer’s sons, is authoritative and detailed (though some editing might have been helpful).

In sum: an intriguing bit of American musical history, and if it provokes some curiosity about the more modestly proportioned McKay works on the earlier CDs, so much the better.