UAlbany to Present Music of William Grant Still, Dean of African American Composers

Contact: Lisa James Goldsberry (518) 437-4989

William Grant Still (1895-1978), known as the dean of African American composers, wrote more than 150 compositions, and contributed to the African American community and to the world of music.

The University at Albany's University Symphony Orchestra and University Chorale will perform the music of this extraordinary but mostly overlooked composer on Sunday, May 6, at 7 p.m. in the Main Theatre of the Performing Arts Center, located on the University's Uptown Campus. Kirk Smith, director of the University Symphony Orchestra, will conduct.

Among Still's many accomplishments, he was the first African American to write a major symphonic work performed by a major American orchestra (Troubled Island). Still was also the first African American to have his opera televised over a national network in the U.S., posthumously, (A Bayou Island) in 1981.

Still, born in Woodville, Mississippi, was the first African American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the U.S., in 1936, when he directed the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and also the first to conduct a major symphony in the deep South, in 1955.

The Orchestra will be accompanied by the University Choral to reproduce four of Still's works. They will perform All That I Am, Wailing Woman, Those Who Wait, and From a Lost Continent. Two of these works have been performed only twice in the past century. The Orchestra and Choral performing these pieces will be an assembly of undergraduates, graduates, faculty, staff, and community members.

Kirk Smith conducts the orchestra and the wind ensemble at UAlbany. Smith's connection to Albany goes beyond his position at the University. His mother, Gloria Smith, was one of the first African American graduates of Union University (now Albany Medical Center).

Smith said he became interested in Still's music while attending college and noticed that there was very little mention of Still in music history books. "He wrote great music, some of which has never been performed," Smith said. He hopes that the audience will walk away with a good feeling about Still's music.

"Live music brings something that nothing else can. When an audience goes to hear music that is unfamiliar, there is always hesitation and wonder about what will happen," Smith said. "After this performance, they will get a very pleasant feeling knowing that once they hear his music, they will have heard of him. Many people who are music fans will realize they have heard Still's music before."

Prior to his current position, Smith served as associate professor of music and director of orchestra activities at Iowa State University. A native of Baltimore, he earned his MA degree in conducting from the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver.

David Griggs-Janower, director of choral music, describes the May 6 concert as a way of introducing and celebrating the music of Still. "He was a very talented composer writing some fairly tough political stuff in the middle part of the century," Griggs-Janower said. "His music was often ignored by white people. We're devoting the concert to his music."

More information about William Grant Still can be found at

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April 26, 2001


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