Don Gillis – who lived until 1978 – wasn’t just one of those tonal composers who got no respect during the serial music stranglehold in the academic world. He was so strongly into old-fashioned simple melody and harmony and so opposed to intellectualism in music that he could have probably been a model composer in the Soviet era if he stuck in a Russian folksong here and there. But Gillis was a 110% American who created cheerful and bright programmatic works imbued with American history and places and not requiring a Master’s Degree in composition to understand. In fact he even predated Aaron Copland in capturing the unique voice of Americana in concert music: the hoedown in his Portrait of a Frontier Town was sketched out as early as 1940 – well before Copland’s Rodeo.
His music has been recorded before, but not in the best performances or sound. Here we have three of his optimistic musical pictures in terrific performances by the dynamic and much-recorded Polish ensemble formerly known as The Polish Chamber Orchestra. (Penderecki is its current music director.) The five movements of the Portrait describe among them Where the West Begins, a Prairie Sunset, and a Ranch House Party. You get the picture – no analysis required here! The Seventh Symphony is a bit more serious with movements titled The Vision, The People, and The Dedication & Fulfillment. But that doesn’t mean lugubrious harmonies or melody-free tunes either. Nice stuff. Let’s hoist a sarsaparilla for Don Gillis!
– John Sunier