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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

The Piano Spheres recital wasn't the only hint of a Walker moment, however tenuous. The sixth piece on a new recording by the venturesome violinist David Bowlin, on the trendy Brooklyn New Focus Recordings label, is a must-hear new work: "Under a Tree, an Udatta" by fashionable recent Pulitzer Prize winner Du Yun, on whom the LA Phil and Los Angeles Opera are keen. The fourth piece on the recording is Walker's enigmatic, virtuosic 2011 violin solo "Bleu," an unexpected look at the blues as only Walker might.

A few weeks ago the BBC's classical music station, Radio 3, a mainstay of Britain's musical life, just happened to make Walker composer of the week, devoting an hour a day, Monday through Friday, to an illuminating discussion of Walker's music with his son, violinist Gregory Walker.

The series is archived for a month on the station's website, and it is an ear opener. Walker had strong reasons to cover his emotions. He was a graciously expressive pianist (there is wonderful performance from 1956 of him playing Brahms' Second Piano Concerto), but a concert career meant dealing with racism on two levels. One was exclusionary. The other, especially in Europe, was condescending.

Ultimately, Walker found he had the best chance for a career in academia, most of it spent at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He was said to have been a demanding teacher as well as a highly self-critical composer. His African American identity is clearly in his music but sometimes found only deep under the surface. An Ellington tune or a spiritual might take an analytical sleuth to find, the notes elongated, played backward or otherwise hidden in the compositional DNA.

Walker's music takes much of its vitality from an inner rather than outer sense of identity. He had to endure always being identified as the first black to graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied with Rudolf Serkin, or as the first black composer to win a Pulitzer. He lived haunted by what his grandmother said it was like to have been slave: "They did everything but eat us."

All of that is in his music, with its celebration of identity, its heartbreak, its elegance, its thrill of being, its honesty. But Walker buries his ego. He doesn't give away easy emotion. There are no easy outs in Walker's music; what he has to say is too important for that. He insists that listeners enter into expression rather than be told how to feel. Good places to start with Walker are his piano and violin concertos. When you get under their skin, they will get under yours.

They, along with a whole host of solo, chamber, orchestral and vocal works, are just waiting for major soloists and conductors to discover them. Thanks to Albany Records, which has made a cause of Walker's music, and other labels, discovery is not all that difficult. Yet, as with the BBC composer of the week, we have to turn to Europe, the only place where many of the orchestral pieces could be recorded.

 

It doesn't have to be that way.

About The Writer

Mark Swed has been the classical music critic of the Los Angeles Times since 1996.

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