George Walker’s Orchestral Music

TCO0005D cover

WALKER: Antifonys for String Orchestra. Sinfonia No. 4, “Strands.” Lilacs for Voice & Orchestra.* Sinfonia No. 5, “Visions”# / *Latonia Moore, soprano; #Tony F. Silas, tenor; The Cleveland Orch.; Franz Welser-Most, conductor / The Cleveland Orchestra TCO 0005D, available for purchase HERE.

I almost had a heart attack when I saw this release. The Cleveland Orchestra playing the music of black modernist George Walker??!? Ah, but have no fear! When music director Franz Welser-Most actually programmed one of Walker’s pieces in concert (the Sinfonia No. 5), OF COURSE he had to “balance” it with a piece by Richard Strauss and Erich Korngold’s mawkish Symphony in F#, described (and I’m not kidding or making this up!) as “penned in his best melodic Hollywood style.” Why didn’t they just play Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto or some of Bennett’s Victory at Sea music while they were at it? (Oh, and don’t forget Williams’ Star Wars suite!)

Yeah, God forbid that a piece of modern music should be on a program with other modern music. No one would come to the concert. Except me and a couple of thousand others. Well, at least I give points to Welser-Most for having the guts to record this all-Walker program, the only downside of which is that the playing time (43:31) is, sadly, too short to give listeners the full range of his talent.

As I pointed out in an earlier review of his music, Walker had to fight so many battles in order to be accepted as a black composer who did not generally write tonal music based on spirituals that he became rather acrid in personality during his later years. I reviewed a CD of his music for a major classical music magazine and unfortunately mistook an English horn for an oboe or vice-versa. Despite the fact that I praised his music very highly, he decided to pounce on my error and attack me, telling me via email that I was an idiot and his young granddaughter could tell the difference so why couldn’t I. It seemed to me a very petty thing for him to do, but my editor assuaged by feelings by revealing that he usually attacked every critic who wrote a review of his music, so I shouldn’t feel alone in this. Later on, when I found out how hard he had to struggle for acceptance as a major serious composer, I forgave him for lashing out, at least to a point.

And Welser-Most does not hold back on the thorny side of Walker’s oeuvre. The Antifonys for strings features fairly thick, atonal writing, but what surprised me was how he was able to create extremely rich string blends within this style. Whether using one string section at a time, two or more, or all of them at once, the players move forward en masse and not with the leaner textures one often hears nowadays in such pieces. And although the meter is constantly shifting, Walker keeps the piece moving forward, even in the brief slow sections here and there. It’s an utterly fascinating piece; if the harmony were tonal, I’m sure it would be a popular concert work.

Interestingly, at least the way these works are programmed on the CD, his Sinfonia No. 4 sounds like a continuation of Antifonys, in part because the first piece ends quietly while the second begins quietly and in part because, despite the atonality, the Sinfonia is in a similar key range or pitch range, but as it develops one notes the more colorful orchestration (particularly in his use of winds and high percussion like triangle) and a more aggressive, less flowing musical contour. Since I didn’t have a booklet to read, I’m not entirely certain of the year of composition, but the JW Pepper sheet music site gives a copyright date of 2014, at which point Walker was 92 years old. If this is the case, it is absolutely astounding for a man of his advanced years to come up with such vital and highly imaginative music. I should add that both Welser-Most and the orchestra pour all of their energy into this music; there is no holding back, no sense that their unfamiliarity with this music was in any way a hurdle to be overcome.

This, in turn, is followed by Lilacs for voice and orchestra, although the one outlet I found for a score online only has the piano-vocal version available. Our soprano, Latonia Moore, has a gorgeous voice and completely unintelligible diction, so I can’t tell you what the poems are about. A review of this piece in the Atlanta Constitution described it as “A dense, dark work that penetrates deeply into the soul of Whitman’s response to the assassination of a great leader.” so I figured it had to be from his epic poem, When Lilacs Last in Doorway Bloom’d, written as a response to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and I was right. Although Walker only used the first three stanzas and the thirteenth, “Sing on, sing on you gray-brown bird.” I was able to find out what Moore was singing. (As is so often the case, she swallows her consonants too much.) The brilliance with which Walker set these words to music is stunning. This is clearly one of his most emotionally moving works.

The last piece on this short disc is the Sinfonia No. 5, yet although it, too contains a vocal (this time a speaking part), his style is aggressive, the music almost made up of sharply jagged musical gestures which coalesce into an astonishing musical whole. According to a New York Times article, this was Walker’s last work (written in 2016), but you’d never guess it from the vitality and freshness of the score. The opening part of the “vocal” consists of a few shouted words: “Drink! Drink to me!,” the first of several quotes from familiar old songs of the past: Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, I Dream of Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair, Rock of Ages and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Tenor Tony F. Silas has absolutely no trouble with clear diction; you can understand every word. As Thomas May put it in his Times article from April 5, 2019:

The texts are elusive, acquiring disquieting ambiguity when juxtaposed with a video that Mr. Schramm created at Dr. Walker’s request. The video, which begins about midway through “Visions,” contains images of ocean scenes filmed on the Atlantic Coast along with close-ups of photographs documenting the slave trade in Charleston.[1]

If anything, the orchestration in this piece is even more colorful and varied than in the Sinfonia No. 4. Between the tenor’s spoken outbursts of song snippets, the orchestra does indeed skitter about over broken meters, suggesting discord and darkness rather than light.

If you had any doubts as to the brilliance of George Walker’s work, this CD is guaranteed to dispel them. He was clearly one of the most original and emotionally powerful composers of his time. I cannot praise this disc highly enough.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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