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Commentary: George Walker is the black composer you should know but don't. Why that may change

Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Richard Valitutto offered an impressive Piano Spheres program at the Colburn School's Zipper Hall last week in downtown Los Angeles. He covered the transgressive keyboard waterfront, exploring the idiosyncratic ways of banging and sounding and resounding that occupy composers of today, young and old. Crafty sonic sensuality and even, with a surprisingly and deliciously sentimental six-minute Poulenc closer, sonic bisexuality gloriously prevailed.

The recital on Jan. 14, however, began surprisingly with George Walker's Piano Sonata No. 5. It also was around six minutes, but it was in a declamatory style that might have seemed to have nothing to do with anything else on the program.

Walker, who died in 2018 at age 96, was one of America's most distinguished composers. He won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1996. He was a superb pianist and an esteemed academic. His shelves and walls were overloaded with the awards and honorary degrees that go with a legendary career. He wrote around 100 pieces, and many of them have been recorded.

No history of American music is complete without Walker, and that means many a standard history of American music is incomplete. Who among classical music lovers, let alone the general public, even knows who George Walker was, much less has heard his music?

Among all else, Walker, the grandson of a slave, was the first African American classical musician to break a color barrier. Had he been a member of the Harlem Renaissance, I have no doubt he'd be widely read. Were he an abstract expressionist painter, you'd be in gravy if you had been savvy enough to have bought work before museums put on exhibitions.

Maybe that's not quite fair. Walker has never been entirely off the radar, and last year the Seattle Symphony garnered a certain amount of attention when it gave the first live performance of Walker's last completed score, "Visions." The fifth in a series of symphonic works he called sinfonias and completed in 2016, it pays tribute, with compelling forcefulness and affecting grace, to the victims of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting a year before in Charleston, S.C. At the time of his death, Walker was working on a piece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

 

Walker's music is uncompromising. It can be thorny. Like Bach, Stravinsky and Webern, he made music with a jeweler's precision, and he didn't wear his emotions on his sleeve. Like their music, his work demands -- and magnificently rewards -- deep listening.

Even so, about the only month in which I ever encounter a piece by Walker on a concert program is February, because that is Black History Month. Walker gets all the respect in the world for being an important black composer. He just doesn't get nearly enough love for his music and has far too long lacked enough champions among our most prominent performers.

But once you get the Walker bug, you begin to think that this has to change. This just might be the moment it will. Valitutto opening a hip recital with the Fifth Sonata feels like a sign. It is a piece that grabs immediately. For a second or two, it sounds as though it came from modernist 1930s, in the manner of a young Copland. No, it's too crystalline for that. More Stravinsky instead. No, not that either.

Before long it dawns on you that the sonata inhabits a world of its own. Its strength is in Walker's confidence in the potential power contained in a grouping of a few notes. Hearing them in a Walker-ian way is akin to studying a leaf under a microscope to understand a tree. The word that comes to mind when I listen to Walker's works is "nourishment." They offer some kind of mysterious sustenance.

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