Saturday, September 18, 2010

Powell Hall no more

Radford University is removing John Powell's name from an arts-and-music hall after being reminded that the Virginia composer and folk-song collector also was a leading activist in white-supremacist "racial purity" causes, Tonia Moxley reports in The Roanoke Times:

Since Powell (1882-1963) was a native and longtime resident of Richmond, home of this blog, I guess I should comment.

Powell's racism makes us want to forget him. His music makes that easy.

As a pianist (a pupil of Theodor Leschetizky, no less), he wrote extensively for that instrument. His big piano pieces are long and seem endless thanks to their turgid, Germanic late-romantic style. Being a folklorist, he naturally produced a number of folk-inspired works, mostly miniatures and suites; these are pleasant but bland. His last big work, the Symphony in A major ("Virginia"), which can be heard on a recording by conductor JoAnn Falletta and the Virginia Symphony (Albany 589), sounds like Elgar on an off-day.

The best-known, or least obscure, work by Powell is "Rhapsodie nègre" for piano and orchestra, which prominently employs the melody of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." The only available recording of the piece (New World 80228) is conducted by the late Calvin Simmons, who was African-American. I like to think of that as posterity's revenge.