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Compact Discoveries 115: Don Gillis

From: Fred Flaxman
Series: Compact Discoveries
Length: 58:00

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Fred Flaxman presents an hour of tuneful, jazzy symphonic music by the very American composer, Don Gillis. Read the full description.

Cdslogo2inch_small Who, you might ask, is or was Don Gillis? Fred Flaxman wouldn't be at all surprised if you never heard of him. He wouldn?t have either, except that he was a high school student at the National Music Camp, Interlochen, Michigan during the late 1950s, and he has vague memories of Gillis appearing there. Don Gillis was born in Missouri in 1912 and he died of a sudden heart attack in South Carolina in 1978. But his family moved to Fort Worth, Texas, when he was 17, and that is the state where he lived and worked most of his life and that is the state which inspired most of his music. While still in high school he formed a jazz band for which he prepared arrangements and wrote original pieces. In 1931 he enrolled in Texas Christian University on a scholarship as a trombone player. He graduated in 1935 and moved on to advanced studies in composition and orchestration at North Texas State University in Denton. After that, for two years he served as staff arranger and producer for a Fort Worth radio station. Then he became a member of the production team for NBC?s Chicago affiliate. His first major works were created about this time. They had interesting titles from the very beginning: "The Panhandle" and "Thoughts Provoked On Becoming a Prospective Papa;" a tone poem called "The Raven," and "Willy the Wollyworm" for narrator and orchestra. In 1944, after only a year in Chicago, NBC brought Gillis to New York to serve as chief producer and writer for the NBC Symphony Orchestra concerts, working with Arturo Toscanini -- with whom he established a close personal friendship. Toscanini, Antal Dorati, other conductors, and the composer himself conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra in many of Don Gillis's works. Gillis held his position with the orchestra until it was disbanded on Toscanini?s retirement in 1954. Then Gillis helped form a new broadcast orchestra called the Symphony of the Air. Gillis went on to become vice president of the National Music Camp, Interlochen, Michigan; chairman of the music department at Southern Methodist University; and chairman of the fine arts department at Dallas Baptist College. In 1973 he was appointed composer-in-residence at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where, as I mentioned, he died in 1978. All this administrative work did not prevent him from writing a great deal of music, including symphonies, operas, piano concertos, rhapsodies for harp and orchestra and trumpet and orchestra, tone poems, suites, string quartets, woodwind quintets, and works for band of every description. Thanks to ArkivMusic.com, Fred Flaxman had five CDs full of this music to choose from. All of it is tonal and highly accessible, unlike the compositions of many of Gillis?s contemporary composers. Like George Gershwin's long-form efforts, Gillis's music combines jazz and popular harmonies with classical instrumentation and forms. But the reason you have probably heard of Gershwin and may not have heard of Gillis, is because Gershwin had a gift for writing catchy, memorable melodies which Flaxman finds lacking in the music of Gillis. Nevertheless, all of Gillis's symphonic music is very well orchestrated and melodic, and most of it is light, fun, and full of humor. Flaxman demonstrates this first with "Shindig," a 1949 ballet composed on commission from the Fort Worth Opera Association. It is a spoof of old-time Western movies. The principal characters are the Kid, a Dance Hall Girl, the Sheriff, and the Drunkard. The Sheriff turns out to be the Villain. The Drunkard is really a Texas Ranger in disguise. Don Gillis's Shindig is performed on an Albany compact disc by the Albany Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Alan Miller. Don Gillis wrote some 13 symphonies, several of them with names as well as numbers or with names without numbers. "The Star-Spangled Symphony," which Fred Flaxman presents next, was acknowledged by Gillis to be his "Ninth," but he was reluctant to number it as such because, as he put it, he didn?t want to "compete with Beethoven." His 10th symphony was called Symphony X, subtitled "The Big D," probably for Dallas. But Gillis said the "X" did not stand for "ten." Then there was Gillis"s Symphony No. 5 1/2, subtitled a "Symphony for Fun." And there were also two symphonies for concert band. The "Star-Spngled Symphony" is divided into four movements. The performance is by Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Ian Hobson on another Albany Records compact disc release. The symphony dates from World War II and its fast tempo opening movement, called "Production Line," suggests the assembly line of a factory geared up for war. The second movement is called "Prayer and Hymn for a Solemn Occasion." This shows Gillis's more serious side. It is a tribute to the men and women who have sacrificed their lives for the American way of life in wars past and present. This 11-minute movement could stand on its own as a tone poem. The third movement is a jazzy scherzo with a blues trio section called "Bobby Socks." It paints a portrait of a high school dance populated by the uniquely American phenomenon, the "bobby-soxer." The final movement is an all-stops pulled out July 4th celebration, complete with patriotic marches, fireworks and dances of all kinds. It is called, appropriately enough, "Celebration -- Fourth of July."

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Piece Description

Who, you might ask, is or was Don Gillis? Fred Flaxman wouldn't be at all surprised if you never heard of him. He wouldn?t have either, except that he was a high school student at the National Music Camp, Interlochen, Michigan during the late 1950s, and he has vague memories of Gillis appearing there. Don Gillis was born in Missouri in 1912 and he died of a sudden heart attack in South Carolina in 1978. But his family moved to Fort Worth, Texas, when he was 17, and that is the state where he lived and worked most of his life and that is the state which inspired most of his music. While still in high school he formed a jazz band for which he prepared arrangements and wrote original pieces. In 1931 he enrolled in Texas Christian University on a scholarship as a trombone player. He graduated in 1935 and moved on to advanced studies in composition and orchestration at North Texas State University in Denton. After that, for two years he served as staff arranger and producer for a Fort Worth radio station. Then he became a member of the production team for NBC?s Chicago affiliate. His first major works were created about this time. They had interesting titles from the very beginning: "The Panhandle" and "Thoughts Provoked On Becoming a Prospective Papa;" a tone poem called "The Raven," and "Willy the Wollyworm" for narrator and orchestra. In 1944, after only a year in Chicago, NBC brought Gillis to New York to serve as chief producer and writer for the NBC Symphony Orchestra concerts, working with Arturo Toscanini -- with whom he established a close personal friendship. Toscanini, Antal Dorati, other conductors, and the composer himself conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra in many of Don Gillis's works. Gillis held his position with the orchestra until it was disbanded on Toscanini?s retirement in 1954. Then Gillis helped form a new broadcast orchestra called the Symphony of the Air. Gillis went on to become vice president of the National Music Camp, Interlochen, Michigan; chairman of the music department at Southern Methodist University; and chairman of the fine arts department at Dallas Baptist College. In 1973 he was appointed composer-in-residence at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where, as I mentioned, he died in 1978. All this administrative work did not prevent him from writing a great deal of music, including symphonies, operas, piano concertos, rhapsodies for harp and orchestra and trumpet and orchestra, tone poems, suites, string quartets, woodwind quintets, and works for band of every description. Thanks to ArkivMusic.com, Fred Flaxman had five CDs full of this music to choose from. All of it is tonal and highly accessible, unlike the compositions of many of Gillis?s contemporary composers. Like George Gershwin's long-form efforts, Gillis's music combines jazz and popular harmonies with classical instrumentation and forms. But the reason you have probably heard of Gershwin and may not have heard of Gillis, is because Gershwin had a gift for writing catchy, memorable melodies which Flaxman finds lacking in the music of Gillis. Nevertheless, all of Gillis's symphonic music is very well orchestrated and melodic, and most of it is light, fun, and full of humor. Flaxman demonstrates this first with "Shindig," a 1949 ballet composed on commission from the Fort Worth Opera Association. It is a spoof of old-time Western movies. The principal characters are the Kid, a Dance Hall Girl, the Sheriff, and the Drunkard. The Sheriff turns out to be the Villain. The Drunkard is really a Texas Ranger in disguise. Don Gillis's Shindig is performed on an Albany compact disc by the Albany Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Alan Miller. Don Gillis wrote some 13 symphonies, several of them with names as well as numbers or with names without numbers. "The Star-Spangled Symphony," which Fred Flaxman presents next, was acknowledged by Gillis to be his "Ninth," but he was reluctant to number it as such because, as he put it, he didn?t want to "compete with Beethoven." His 10th symphony was called Symphony X, subtitled "The Big D," probably for Dallas. But Gillis said the "X" did not stand for "ten." Then there was Gillis"s Symphony No. 5 1/2, subtitled a "Symphony for Fun." And there were also two symphonies for concert band. The "Star-Spngled Symphony" is divided into four movements. The performance is by Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Ian Hobson on another Albany Records compact disc release. The symphony dates from World War II and its fast tempo opening movement, called "Production Line," suggests the assembly line of a factory geared up for war. The second movement is called "Prayer and Hymn for a Solemn Occasion." This shows Gillis's more serious side. It is a tribute to the men and women who have sacrificed their lives for the American way of life in wars past and present. This 11-minute movement could stand on its own as a tone poem. The third movement is a jazzy scherzo with a blues trio section called "Bobby Socks." It paints a portrait of a high school dance populated by the uniquely American phenomenon, the "bobby-soxer." The final movement is an all-stops pulled out July 4th celebration, complete with patriotic marches, fireworks and dances of all kinds. It is called, appropriately enough, "Celebration -- Fourth of July."

Broadcast History

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Transcript

Compact Discoveries?
a series of one-hour radio programs produced, written, hosted, and edited by Fred Flaxman
?2006 by Compact Discoveries, Inc.

Program 115
"Don Gillis"

MUSIC: Gillis: opening of Star-Spangled Symphony?s Fourth Movement: Celebration -- Fourth of July, performed by Sinfonia Varsovia [Albany Records TROY618, track 4] [under the following]

Welcome to Compact Discoveries. I?m your guide, Fred Flaxman. Stay with me for the next hour and I?ll share with you the very American music of the very American composer, Don Gillis. We?ll listen to his ballet Shindig and his Star-Spangled Symphony, the last movement of which is fading out of the background right now.

MUSIC: fades out

Don Gillis was born in Missouri in 1912 and he died of a sudden heart attack in South Carolina in 1978. But his family moved to Fort Worth, Texas, when he was 17, and that is the stat...
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Timing and Cues

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