GEORGE WALKER – GREAT AMERICAN ORCHESTRAL MUSIC: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra; Sinfonia No. 2 for Orchestra; Foils for Orchestra (Homage a Saint George); Pageant and Proclamation – Gregory Walker, violin/ Andrezej Krzyzanowski, solo flute /Sinfonia Varsovia/Ian Hobson – Albany Troy 1178, 57:49, **:
88–year-old composer George Theophilus Walker was the first African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1996 for Lilacs, a piece for voice and orchestra. At age 14, he gave his first piano recital and went on to earn degrees from Oberlin and Curtis Institute where he studied piano with Rudolph Serkin and Mieczyslaw Horszowski. In 1957 he studied composition with Nadia Boulanger on a Fulbright Fellowship. In his career he has won many fellowships, grants and awards and there are numerous recordings of his compositions.
It’s surprising to listen to this music after hearing an excerpt from Mr. Walker’s most performed orchestral work, Lyric for Strings, a beautiful tonal work written in the mode of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1988) was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2009, contracted by the generosity of Dr. James Undercofler, CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The composer wrote it for his son, Gregory, who performs it on this disc. It’s a dramatic work filled with tension that’s created by contrasting large blocks of dissonant orchestral passages with brief lyrical violin passages. Percussive effects are used to ameliorate the discordant temperament of the work. There are lyrical passages for the violin, especially in the final movement, but their juxtaposition next to loud traumatic orchestral sections is akin to an elephant stepping on a bird. It’s the most difficult composition to understand and like on this disc.
Sinfonia No. 2 (1992) begins in a quieter, more contemplative mood, employing the strings for its lyric sections. An ethereal second movement features the flute and a jazzy finale completes this ingratiating work. Foils for Orchestra is a musical drama depicting two swords in a fencing match. The composer uses dramatic orchestral chords to depict a tension-filled event to good effect. Pageant and Proclamation (1997) was commissioned for the opening of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Using excerpts from “When the saints go marching in” and the civil rights song “We Shall Overcome,” Walker uses uplifting fanfares and rhythmic melodic moments to “affirm the determination of its citizenry to revive the trouble-plagued city of Newark, New Jersey.”
The performances and recording are excellent. The diverse works on this CD are reflective of an academic composer whose sophisticated compositional skills deserve much effort from the listener to be fully rewarded. Recommended only for those who have the time and desire to listen seriously.
— Robert Moon