A Short Overture (1946)
By Carol J. Oja, Brooklyn College
Written for the concert Common Ground performed on April 15, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
Ulysses Kay has ancestral ties to jazz through his maternal uncle, Joseph “King” Oliver, the legendary New Orleans trumpeter of the 1920s. Yet his compositions only occasionally reveal that heritage. Rather, they fit firmly into an equally strong –although far less widely celebrated –African-American tradition: that of the concert hall. Kay’s musical language is fundamentally conservative, growing out of the work of William Grant Still (with whom Kay was friends, beginning in the mid-1930s) and standing alongside that of a broad-based group of his American contemporaries, including figures such as Morton Gould, Howard Hanson, Elie Siegmeister, and George Walker. Together, their music consistently has represented a solid phalanx against experimental trends. Kay’s A Short Overture of 1946 won the George Gershwin Memorial Award the next year. True to its title, it is a brief piece, defined by two main thematic areas. The first, heard after opening chordal punctuations (which recur), appears in the violin. Dance-like and saucily disjunctive, it becomes progressively more dissonant, both rhythmically and harmonically, before being repeated in several incarnations. A new texture announces the transition to the second thematic area, as the fast-moving lines of the opening give way to equally fast but spare chords. Beneath them, the cello delivers a soaring line–a lyrical thematic contrast to the propulsive opening. Throughout the remainder of the work, these two ideas define the musical environment– sometimes combined, sometimes alternated, continually transformed. All in all, they add up to a solid work of mainstream sensibility.