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Classical 101

Recording features mother-daughter duo in world premieres by William Grant Still

Classical 101's Jennifer Hambrick interviews Zina Schiff and Avlana Eisenberg about their new recording, Summerland.
Jennifer Hambrick
Classical 101's Jennifer Hambrick interviews violinist Zina Schiff and conductor Avlana Eisenberg about their new recording, "Summerland," featuring orchestral works by William Grant Still.

While an aspiring young violinist, Zina Schiff had the chance to perform one of Vivaldi’s violin concertos as soloist with a youth orchestra in her native Los Angeles. After the concert, a man in the audience approached her with some flattering words of encouragement.

“I thought he was a movie star, because he was strikingly handsome,” Schiff said.

Years later, Schiff was conducting research for her 1994 recording Here’s One, featuring works by William Grant Still. She saw a photograph of the composer and recognized him as the gracious man she had met after that concert so many years earlier.

Schiff’s early encounters with Still and his music have taken her on a lifelong journey, one she now shares with her daughter, the conductor Avlana Eisenberg. The pair perform together on Summerland, a new recording in the Naxos label’s American Classics series, featuring orchestral works by Still – many in world-premiere recordings – with Schiff as soloist and Eisenberg conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Still is best known for his Afro-American Symphony (1930), the first symphony by an African American composer. That work, like many of Still’s works, blends influences from the European classical, blues, jazz and spiritual traditions.

While the Afro-American Symphony has been recorded multiple times, most of Still’s more than 200 works have yet to be recorded at all. Eisenberg says she and Schiff wanted to change that with Summerland, their second commercial recording together.

“I vividly remember first being exposed to William Grant Still’s work back in the ‘90s, when Zina was learning and recording these pieces, these shorter works, and then as she championed his more substantial works for violin. And once we realized that these works were orchestrated and had never been recorded, it seemed pretty obvious what needed to happen,” said Eisenberg.

Summerland showcases gems from across Still’s nearly 70-year career. His first orchestral work, the tuneful and charming American Suite (1918), comes from his time as a student at Wilberforce University. The Threnody: In Memory of Jan Sibelius (1965), from Still’s later years, is one of this recording’s world premieres, along with Still’s orchestrated versions of his Violin Suite, Pastorela, Fanfare for the 99th Fighter Squadron, Can’tcha Line ‘Em, Quit Dat Fool’nish and the recording’s much-performed title work, Summerland, all from the middle decades of his career.

Photograph of William Grant Still composing at the piano, on the cover of the recording "William Grant Still: Summerland"
Naxos Recordings
publicity photo

“There is a story behind each piece, and I love those stories and I love learning about his life. It was full of struggle, and yet full of optimism and love of life, love of his country, love of God, love of his family, love of his deep friendships with people,” Schiff said. “He just had this vast experience, and throughout it, he was just such a positive force – loving life and bringing it into his music.”

Summerland comes at a time of increasing interest in music by composers of color, a movement Eisenberg says she hopes will take root and grow.

“On the one hand, I think it’s incredibly exciting that this collection of his works, world premieres, (is) now out in the world. And I personally am proud to have been part of this project for that reason. I also think that, at the same time this feel celebratory, it’s also really sobering because this is not new music. These works have been collecting dust for generations,” Schiff said, “and I only hope that this is not a passing phase, and that this is something that continues to galvanize momentum to explore underrepresented voices.”

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.