MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Ruth Reinhardt and Asher Fisch Lead the Seattle Symphony

Ruth Reinhardt conducting Seattle Symphony in Bernstein’s Candide Overture during her tenure as an SOO Conducting Fellow (2017)

Last week’s subscription concerts launched Seattle Symphony’s Sibelius Symphony cycle, which had been anticipated as a highlight of Thomas Dausgaard’s return since the pandemic. In the wake of the now-ex-music director’s sudden departure announced last month, a handful of replacement conductors has been enlisted to take over Dausgaard’s commitments for the rest of the season.

First up this month was Ruth Reinhardt, a remarkable conductor of the young generation. She had the formidable task of taking on the first program of the Sibelius cycle, in which the Finnish composer’s symphonies are being combined with newly commissioned compositions. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Ellen Reid responded to Sibelius’s First Symphony with a work titled TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY. Lasting about a quarter-hour, it showed Reid as a composer who not only creates intriguing soundscapes but is able to illuminate them with psychologically resonant significance.

The Macbethian title (even more despairing than “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”) refers to the patterns of repetition and monotony endured during the pandemic. But her music stages various escapes — lyrical fantasias, utopian dreaming, even a down-to-earth party — from the stasis and repetition that threaten to drain each day of the joie de vivre. Reid uses the resources of the orchestra with great imagination and variety.

Moreover, as became clear in Reinhardt’s sweeping, panoramic vision of the Sibelius, Reid seems to have found a pandemic-era equivalent for the vision conveyed by Sibelius’s extraordinary debut symphony, which builds to a seeming lyrical breakthrough or even oasis, only to find it illusive. That connection certainly seemed apparent in Reinhardt’s overview of both works. Between them, we were treated to an exquisitely phrased, completely beguiling interpretation by Garrick Ohlsson of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, followed by thunderous, bell-like chords in his encore, the C-sharp minor Prelude.

What a gift to have Asher Fisch back in town after a long absence. The program he conducted on Thursday evening paired George Walker and Gustav Mahler, and the pairing works beautifully. Fisch infused Lyric for Strings with genuine warmth and underscored the fascinating entanglement of folk and modernist elements in the much later Folksongs for Orchestra, which dates from 1990. It continues to defy belief that this great American composer remains such a rarity in our concert life. How long is it going to take to change that?

Fisch was in his element with Das Lied von der Erde, and the Mahler-starved audience — the pandemic has been especially unkind to the composers who require enlarged orchestras — drank it up with rapt attention. I especially admired his flexible rhythms and feeling for Mahler’s Jugendstil ornamentation, but he also kept the emotional destination of the cycle clearly in view, illuminating the way to, and the journey within, the vast final song. Problems of balance left tenor Russell Thomas largely drowned out for stretches of the opening “Trinklied,” but his passionate delivery conveyed the flashes of bitter epiphany Mahler expresses.

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor brought a rich, dark timbre to her three songs, carefully building the sense of inevitable leave-taking in “Der Abschied.” The expanded woodwind section was a special highlight, with eloquent contributions from flutist Demarre McGill and oboist Mary Lynch in particular. Fisch’s unpretentious, unfussy clarity allowed each detail to fall into place with memorable impact.

The program will be repeated on Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 4pm. It would be a shame to miss it.

Filed under: George Walker, Mahler, review, Seattle Symphony

George Walker at Seattle Symphony

The composer George Walker died last summer at 96. He was a close friend of the artist Frank Schramm, who documented his final years in photographs.
George Walker; image by Frank Schramm

Thinking of the brilliant composer George Walker today, who passed away almost four years ago at the age of 96. Tonight’s Seattle Symphony program pairs music by Walker with Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Walker will be represented by his Lyric for Strings and Folksongs for Orchestra.

On the podium, in another welcome return, is Asher Fisch, who has been absent far too long. He was principal guest conductor of Seattle Opera from 2007 to 2013.

Here’s the story I wrote about George Walker for the New York Times before the pandemic. Many thanks to Frank Schramm, whose marvelous photos were indispensable to this piece.

SEATTLE — Last fall, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery began to display, among its recent acquisitions, a photograph of the composer George Walker. It shows him close up, his right index finger and thumb bearing down on a pencil with the precision of a surgeon, at work on the manuscript score of his Sinfonia No. 5….

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Filed under: George Walker, Mahler, Seattle Symphony

George Walker’s Sinfonia No. 4

In the spring of 2019, the Seattle Symphony gave the posthumous world premiere of George Walker’s Sinfonia No. 5 (more background in my New York Times story here). Simon Rattle was hoping to give the UK premiere with the Chineke! Orchestra at the BBC Proms, but the pandemic scuttled that plan.

So he scheduled Walker’s concise Sinfonia No. 4 (“Strands”) on the London Symphony Orchestra’s program for this week. The concert will be repeated and streamed online by Marquee TV on 19 September at 1.30pm ET and then available on demand. Also on the program (notes here): Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

Filed under: George Walker, music news

Inside the George Walker Cello Sonata with CelloChat

Panelists Astrid Schween, Emmanuel Feldman, Owen Young, and Seth Parker Woods will discuss George Walker’s three-movement Cello Sonata from 1957 in this two-part offering from CelloBello.

Part 1: Saturday, 19 September at 12:00 pm EDT

Part 2: Saturday, 26 September at 12:00 pm EDT

For my Strings magazine profile of George Walker in 2017, Seth Parker Woods shared the following remarks about the Cello Sonata: “In playing [this piece], you’re engulfed in a state of beauty and episodic turmoil. One of the things I love is that its amazing melodic lines fit perfectly in the hand, as if they were molded all along for a cellist. It’s a brilliant work that I really would love to see more and more younger and older cellists performing. George Walker’s music is of monumental status and importance.” 

Filed under: American music, cello, George Walker, Seth Parker Woods

Happy Birthday to George Walker

In honor of George Walker’s birthday — he would have turned 98 on Saturday — here’s my profile for the New York Times published last year, ahead of the posthumous premiere of his Sinfonia No. 5.

Deeply entrenched racism drove Walker away from his career as a concert pianist to the solitary existence of a composer. This extraordinary musical personality was shamefully neglected throughout his long life yet continued producing intricate, masterfully wrought scores. Here’s hoping that Walker’s upcoming centennial will be the catalyst needed for a wholesale engagement with his rich oeuvre.

“A Composer’s Final Work Contains ‘Visions’ of an American Master”

Filed under: American music, George Walker, new music

A Composer’s Final Work Contains ‘Visions’ of an American Master

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The composer George Walker died last summer at 96. He was a close friend of the artist Frank Schramm, who documented his final years in photographs. Photo (c) Frank Schramm

My New York Times article on the late George Walker is now online and will be in the Sunday Arts section.

SEATTLE — Last fall, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery began to display, among its recent acquisitions, a photograph of the composer George Walker. It shows him close up, his right index finger and thumb bearing down on a pencil with the precision of a surgeon, at work on the manuscript score of his Sinfonia No. 5.

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Filed under: American music, George Walker, new music, New York Times

RIP George Walker (1922-2018)

I’m devastated by news of the death of George Walker. It was just over a year ago that I had the opportunity to interview him at length for a magazine profile. I know he was eagerly looking forward to the live public premiere of his Sinfonia No. 5 (“Visions”) next April with the Seattle Symphony — his reaction to the 2015 church massacre in Charleston.

George Walker’s music remains woefully neglected and underrepresented. As the music world looks back over his remarkable legacy — as a composer and a pianist, whose career was stymied by systemic racism — I hope this situation finally begins to change for the better.

Filed under: George Walker, music news

Happy Birthday, George Walker!

The wonderful American composer George Walker turns 96 today. And he’s still very much at work, with a symphonic world premiere coming up in the new Seattle Symphony season: Sinfonia No. 5, in which he reflects on the massacre at a Charleston church in 2015.

The clip above is from a 2012 interview, just before George Walker reached the age of 90.
Happy Birthday, George!

Filed under: American music, George Walker

George Walker’s Piano Sonatas

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The Eastman School of Music celebrates the 95th birthday year of one of its illustrious alumni, the composer and pianist George Theophilus Walker (’56), with a special recital this evening. At 7:30 p.m. EST, the Albanian pianist Redi Llupa will perform all five of Walker’s piano sonatas, which span a half century, from 1953 to 2003.

The concert will be streamed and made publicly available here.

Filed under: American music, George Walker

Chineke! Makes Proms Debut

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This evening is Prom 62, in which the Chineke! Orchestra makes its BBC Proms debut.
One of Chineke!’s founding cellists is Seth Parker Woods, whom I wrote about for this month’s cover issue of Strings magazine. They’ll also be playing music by George Walker for the first time on a Proms program.

link to broadcast from BBC Radio 3

Filed under: BBC Proms, George Walker, Seth Parker Woods

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