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George Walker (1922-2018)

Five Sinfonias

National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor)
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Label: National Symphony Orchestra
Recording details: Various dates
Concert Hall at John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, USA
Produced by Blanton Alspaugh
Engineered by Mark Donahue
Release date: November 2023
Total duration: 65 minutes 17 seconds

Cover artwork: Photograph of George Walker by Frank Schramm

In January 2022, the National Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Gianandrea Noseda began performing and recording the complete cycle of George Walker’s five sinfonias. Remembering and honouring the music of George Walker is particularly special for the National Symphony Orchestra given the mutual connection to Washington DC, and the orchestra’s unique history of collaboration and commissions.

Sinfonia No 1 (1984, revised 1996)

“I’ve always thought in universal terms, not just what is Black, or what is American, but simply what has quality,” George Walker said in an interview on the occasion of his 90th birthday in 2012. British critic Tom Service, writing in The Guardian in 2015, cited Hindemith and Stravinsky as two of Walker’s “musical heroes,” but stressed that the American composer “has created a distinctive world that is modernist and multifaceted yet richly communicative.”

This distinguished composer, pianist, and educator, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his orchestral song cycle Lilacs in 1996, published a fascinating memoir in which he recounted a lifetime of successes and honors and also spoke quite frankly about his musical likes and dislikes. He had studied piano with Rudolf Serkin and composition with Samuel Barber’s teacher Rosario Scalero at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and first made his name with the often performed Lyric for Strings, a creative response to Barber’s Adagio for Strings. As a composer, he always remained true to his classical roots and built an oeuvre of symphonic and chamber works that earned him the esteem not only of the profession but of a wide audience as well.

Between 1984 and 2016, Walker composed five sinfonias. The first of these, commissioned by the Fromm Foundation, was premiered by the Berkshire Music Center Orchestra under Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood on August 1, 1984. It is a compact work in two movements, in which moments of great energy and powerful outbursts alternate with calm, lyrical sections. There are massive, block-like chords for the brass and wild percussion passages, but also sensitive violin solos and agitated outbursts for the clarinet and the flute, among others. In turn dramatic and tender, the work covers a lot of emotional ground in just over 10 minutes, and ends with a climactic statement for the entire orchestra.

Sinfonia No 2 (1990)
George Walker never wanted to be seen simply as a Black composer. He refused to be pigeonholed in that way, and while he occasionally made allusions to Negro spirituals in his music, his mature style is firmly rooted in European modernism. Some critics have detected influences of Stravinsky and Hindemith, but the fiercely independent Walker was, essentially, going his own way and did not profess allegiance to any “camp”.

Sinfonia No 2 was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation, one of the most prestigious organizations devoted to the promotion of contemporary music, honoring the memory of Serge Koussevitzky, long-time music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Walker’s work was first performed by Neeme Järvi and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1993. The composer provided the following concise description:

The first movement begins with a four-note motive for full orchestra. An ascending melodic line in the violins continues in the woodwinds. Repeated notes in the brass terminate that section. In the next section an extended melodic line beginning in the celli and contra basses and moving to violins, woodwinds, and horns leads to a contrasting four-note motive stated by an oboe. This becomes the genesis of a new section that climaxes with a restatement of the four-note motive from the opening of the movement. Rhythmic similarities to this material appear with intervallic alterations. A flurry of notes in the strings and woodwinds subsides quickly to a sustained “D” in the violins that is punctuated by pizzicati in the lower strings. An ascending melodic line culminates in a tutti of repeated notes. A brief coda closes the movement quietly. The second movement, marked “Lamentoso e quasi senza misura”, begins as a flute solo before a chord played by four celli and a guitar support the florid figuration in the flute part. With the return of the initial segment of the flute solo, three more celli and a double bass are added to the orchestration. The rhythmic impulse of five notes played initially by the English horn and bass clarinet are the core elements that can be identified in the third movement. The subtle emergence of an eighth-note pattern with a steady pulse provides the basis for the imposition of rhythmic fragments above it. Interposed between these sections are brief sustained moments that interrupt the foot-tapping insistence of the bass line of eighth notes. The brilliant conclusion of the work incorporates the five notes heard at the beginning of the movement.

Sinfonia No 3 (2002)
George Walker’s third sinfonia was premiered a decade after the second, and once more by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (conducted, in this case, by Andrey Boreyko). But it was composed a full 22 years after its predecessor. The fact that it had to wait a much shorter time for its first performance certainly speaks to Walker’s growing recognition as an American master.

The present work finds the octogenarian composer at the height of his creative powers, as vigorous and full of energy as ever. In three compact movements following the traditional fast-slow-fast outline, it is a technically challenging and emotionally charged composition, in turns majestic and tender, agitated and more relaxed. An energetic opening sets the stage for an austere first movement, dominated by massive blocks of chords. The middle movement starts out with some lyrical woodwind lines, yet its elementary melodic gestures build up to a dramatic high point, followed by a resolution of the tensions. The final movement is tumultuous and intense throughout. Unlike many of his younger colleagues, Walker remained a committed modernist in his harmonic language. As the British critic Tom Service has written: [Walker’s music] “has a sharp-edged clarity in its modernist dissonances and angularity, and yet you feel his essential desire to communicate with his audiences throughout.”

Sinfonia No 4 'Strands' (2011)
George Walker celebrated the year of his 90th birthday with the premiere of a brand new work, Sinfonia No 4, “Strands”. The commission came from a consortium of orchestras, including the National, Cincinnati, New Jersey, and Pittsburgh symphony orchestras, with a grant from Meet the Composer, and was premiered by the New Jersey Symphony in March 2012 under the direction of Jacques Lacombe.

The subtitle refers to the “strands” from two spirituals, “There is a Balm in Gilead” and “Roll, Jordan, Roll” that the composer wove into the fabric of his composition. Walker’s use of these quotes is rather subtle and somewhat reminiscent of the way Charles Ives worked with church hymns in many of his works: the melodies are fragmented, transformed, and hinted at more than presented in full. Their “strands” are integrated into a rhythmically vibrant and colorfully orchestrated onemovement work, projecting high energy and constant excitement.

Commenting on his piece, Walker offered the following pointers:

The Sinfonia begins with an introduction that consists of several sections before the principal theme is stated. This theme recurs several times. The quotation of the first spiritual provides a pensive relief from the proclamatory nature of the theme that precedes it.
The briefer snippet of the second spiritual is affirmative. The following section consists of a melodic bass line over which fragmented interjections are superimposed. A similar section recurs, combining with the opening phrase of the second spiritual played by the piano during the course of the work. The bass material appears briefly in the coda.

Sinfonia No 5 'Visions' (2016)
The last of George Walker’s sinfonias is an unrelentingly modernist work from the pen of the 94-year-old composer who seemed to become ever more radical as he grew older. On June 27, 2015, a 21-year-old white supremacist shot nine African American members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Walker, who had visited Charleston shortly before, was profoundly shaken by the news of the massacre, and decided to make his latest orchestral composition into a protest against violence. The work became more than that, however. According to Walker’s original concept, the music was supposed to be accompanied by a video of Charleston, created by the composer’s friend, photographer Frank Schramm, and by a series of poetic readings, in a multimedia presentation. However, the piece can also be performed as a purely orchestral composition.

After completing the work, Walker arranged for a studio recording with British conductor Ian Hobson and the Sinfonia Varsovia orchestra in Poland. The concert premiere was given posthumously by Thomas Dausgaard and the Seattle Symphony in April 2019. “Visions” is in a single movement and runs about 16 minutes in performance.

At the beginning of the score, Walker wrote the words “in memoriam…” In the words of composer Andrew Stiefel, “From the opening flourish in the orchestra, the music is agitated, restless, switching from idea to idea… through textures with outbursts of percussion declaratively punctuating each phrase.” Nervous scales, strong accents, and violent harmonic clashes express the tragic reality that in spite of all the progress that has been made, racial violence still couldn’t be eradicated from our world. The string, woodwind, and brass parts are all extremely demanding, and the work also includes several powerful piano solos, reminding us that Walker started his musical career as a concert pianist. Although the tempo is mostly on the moderate side, the piece has a strong rhythmic drive; the abundance of motifs and frequent changes in orchestration make the flow of the music utterly unpredictable. The work, as British conductor Edward Gardner put it, “is suffused with anger”. But it is a productive sort of anger: it will make us think and reflect.

Peter Laki © 2023

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