Albany Records has added a fourth volume to its laudable series of recordings of music by George Theophilus Walker. At 92 (going on 93), Mr. Walker remains an active composer and was recently nominated for New Jersey’s Hall of fame — he resides in Montclair — and if he wins, it would make a lovely addition to his accolades. They just happen to include a slew of honorary doctorates, AASCAP’s Aaron Copland Award, induction into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame … oh, and a Pulitzer, which he received in 1996 for his Whitman-inspired Lilacs.
These are sensitive but rigorous performances and give a wonderful spread of Mr. Walker’s career, from Antifonys for String Orchestra (love the title), originally composed in 1967 for double string quartet, and the Pulitzer-winning Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra to several compositions that prove Mr. Walker’s creative energy has not dimmed.
I’m especially attracted to the 2012 work Sinfonia No. 4 (“Strands”), which I recently heard as part of the National Symphony’s innovative New Moves series. (My notes on the piece are here.) To be honest, the account on this CD is a good deal richer and more compellingly shaped than what I heard in the live performance. Conductor Ian Hobson, leading Poland’s Sinfonia Varsovia, not only gets the solemnity and idea-dense intricacy of this music but knows how to articulate its drama, its transitional energy.
Mr. Walker explains that the guiding idea behind the title “Strands” involves an “interplay” of thematic material that’s both severely compact and, with the subtle introduction of two quotations from spirituals, visionary and affirming. Given the task of writing a short “concert opener” with this commission, he chose a complex, densely argued soundscape over an easy crowd-pleasing rouser. It’s powerful stuff.
I hadn’t realized Mr. Walker originally wrote Lilacs with Vinson Cole in mind. Mr. Cole has had an illustrious career at Seattle Opera — I’ve heard his exquisite tenor on several occasions — but he was “unable to sing the part” at the world premiere in 1996 by the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa. They had commissioned Lilacs as a brief work for a concert to commemorate the legendary tenor Roland Hayes. Mr. Walker therefore was asked to reconfigure the piece for a soprano, Faye Robinson, who sang the solo part in the premiere. (Geoff Gehman has the whole story here.)
On this recording Albert Rudolph Lee provides the originally intended tenor solo, singing this demanding, high-lying part with emotional fervor and conviction. As for the “eight minutes” originally stipulated by the commission, we’re fortunate that Mr. Walker followed his muse and composed a characteristically eloquent piece of 14 minutes (divided into four sections), the whole packed with gripping ideas and fragrant sound colors.
Further evidence of Mr. Walker’s phenomenal creative drive at an advanced age is found in Movements for Cello and Orchestra, another product of his 90th year (2012). Dmitry Kousov is the splendid protagonist in this inventive rethinking of the cello concerto format.
For more information on this American treasure, Ethan Iverson has conducted an interview at dothemath.
(c) 2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.