Notes and Editorial Reviews
Icarus in Orbit.
Abu. Dialogus. Da Camera
Ian Hobson, cond; Rochelle Sennet (pn) ; Richard Herrera, Yvonne Gonzales Redman (nar); Sherban Lupu (vn); Brandon Vamso, Dmitri Kouzov (vc); Sinfonia da Camera; Sinfonia Varsovia
ALBANY 1334 (56:13)
If I were looking for a succinct way to describe George Walker’s music I would say that it blends vigorous strength with lyrical Romanticism. These two facets of his musical character elicit differing harmonic procedures as well as thematic profiles, with the serious, granitic episodes stamping Walker as a 20th/21st-century composer, well acquainted with abstract expression and advanced harmony, and the traditional side speaking the common language of Western, and specifically American, music before Schoenberg. The current Albany release contains an impressive collection of Walker’s works, alternating between shorter portraits and longer concerted pieces.
Icarus in Orbit
for narrator and chamber orchestra, are in a sense miniature tone poems in which the music deftly follows the narrative action. The story of Icarus’s ambitious rise and tragic fall is clearly illustrated in Walker’s forceful opening, sweeping, flying figures, and the concluding flute solo, which with its slow, melodic descent mimes the hero’s fate.
Although well known, I’m guessing that James Henry Leigh Hunt’s affecting poem
Abu Ben Adhem
is not as firmly embedded in the cultural consciousness as the myth of Icarus, so Walker was wise to retain the verses: the synergy ’twixt text and music heightens both the humanitarian message and the angelic radiance of the supernatural visitor. Narrator Richard Herrera’s resonant voice, musically apposite timing, and precise diction linger in the mind long after the tale is told.
The Piano Concerto begins in a deceptively mild mood, which is quickly dispelled by the piano’s first declamatory entrance. The steady, emphatic writing, occasionally relieved by scintillant passagework, leads to a gentler interlude set against soft, atmospheric orchestral support. This in turn gives way to a menacing drama, with brass, cymbals, and dark unison strings providing an effective counterweight for the soloist’s insistent voice. Walker, who is both a pianist and composer, writes knowledgeably and effectively for his instrument. The second movement’s opening placidity is, as in the first movement, disrupted by the angry piano, but not permanently. A few brief notes from a modified trumpet—perhaps some form of mute was used that accounts for the liquid sound—prompts further excursions from the piano in which delicacy alternates with severity. Conflict resolved, the movement ends in calm repose. The third-movement finale surges forward in driving motoric fashion with the piano percussively holding its own amid aggressive orchestral outbursts. A relaxed section—what would be a second thematic group in traditional sonata form—ensues, then the initial robust energy returns, anticipating the dramatic solo cadenza. The movement is actually a fugue in three voices—according to the composer, a unique occurrence in a concerto—a detail that would probably be best appreciated by a thorough analysis of the score or by repeated, carefully attentive hearings. Rochelle Sennet plays the concerto, which is dedicated to its first exponent, pianist Natalie Hinderas, with supreme confidence.
is essentially a one-movement concerto for cello and orchestra. Dmitri Kuzov is the impassioned soloist who threads his way through the often demanding part with dexterous assurance. Lighter in orchestral texture than the piano concerto—no doubt so as not to swamp the soloist and to place him firmly in the foreground—there’s still color aplenty in the orchestration. Conductor Ian Hobson is a sensitive accompanist, allowing the soloist free rein while following their lead with split-second timing. The orchestra phrases expertly, transitions are seamless, tempo and pacing well judged and frequently exciting, textures balanced, and most important, the composer’s language has been fully assimilated, comprehended, and communicated.
suggests a concerto grosso in which a
of piano trio, harp, and celesta is set off from a string-orchestra
. It’s stylistically varied, with spirituals, jazz, Broadway, and “serious” statements all having their say. When jazz appears it struts in a walking bass and catchy syncopation but I can’t identify the two standards that Walker says he’s quoted (he doesn’t give the titles). He also doesn’t mention the musical by name, but it’s safe to assume that it’s
, as the musicians chant, “Pocahontas lies over the hill,” just before
ends. My ignorance extends to the quoted spiritual, but its appearance is one of the loveliest moments in the piece.
George Walker has had a long, distinguished career and anyone interested in learning more about him is directed to his autobiography,
Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist
. He was also interviewed by James Altena in
33:6. This CD offers another, more intuitive way of making his acquaintance, by listening to the uniformly excellent performances of his music.
FANFARE: Robert Schulslaper
Sometimes George Walker’s music reminds me of Carl Ruggles in its bright colors, sharp-edged chord structures and love of bold, plain spoken melodic gestures. Icarus in Orbit, written for the 25th Anniversary of the New Jersey Youth Orchestra tells the story of Icarus from flight to fall but symbolically, without obvious literal allusions. It captures in its roughhewn sonorities, that pile up to lofty heights, a feeling of striving despite the odds. It is a short piece that satisfies on repeated listening.
The piano concerto, on the surface is atonal music on par with Sessions or Riegger and just as brilliant. Its originality comes to the fore over the length of the piece as a whole for there are introspective and poetic moments as well as active, violent outbursts. For me this made Walker’s concerto both modern and American, yet not inconsistent with the tradition of the Romantic piano concerto. This is a deep work, new yet in the traditional three movements. There are surprising moments and a fresh newness to the music, yet graced with traditional signposts, (such as recognizable dramatic gestures and being a concerto in three movements.) Music well worth hearing!
Written on commission from Loren Maazel while the composer was in residence at the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Italy, Dialogus for Cello and Orchestra is a 12 minute single movement fantasy that consistently contrasts between reflective, introverted passages and craggy, angular melodic arguments. We are informed by the program notes that at times, little motivic references and embellishments occasionally reflect the sounds of birds and chirping insects near the studio. But this is not bucolic, pastoral music. It is an intricate, motivicially interrelated musical argument by the solo cello in an uncharacteristic though believable mood, interspersed with periods of repose. Cellist Dmitri Kouzov plays this very challenging solo part with marvelous musicianship and a sense of dramatic forward momentum.
Abu, composed in 2004 on commission from the Network for New Music in Philadelphia, is a work for a speaking baritone narrator, a soprano narrator representing an angle and a chamber orchestra. The text is the poem “Abu Ben Adhem” by the British poet, James Henry Leigh Hunt. The music becomes less dissonant near the end when Walker introduces a reference to the 1826 hymn “In Christ there is no East or West” by Alexander Reinagle, who lived in Philadelphia. The effect is much different from the lovely Bach chorale that appears almost as a dream within Berg’s violin concerto. Here the overall music becomes more consonant and perhaps as a result, more Coplandesque.
Da Camera, (the title is a contraction of Concerto de Camera,) is scored for piano trio, harp, celesta, string orchestra and percussion and this combination suits Walker’s jagged style very well. This work, with its jazzy elements embedded within highly engaged, colorful music that includes even a short bit of vocal chanting by the ensemble, often bursts out at you. It is probably the most immediately approachable piece on this dramatic album.
The music of George Walker is worth knowing, especially if you're a collector of serious American music beyond the popular favorites. What could be said for many composers applies here, due to the consistency of this highly crafted, often craggy music, some listeners will want to explore these pieces one at a time rather than listen to the whole album in one go. Others will be drawn from work to work in fascination.
- Greg La Traille,