By Philippa Kiraly, Special to the Sybaritic Singer
We’ve been deprived. For years.
Thursday night, the Seattle Symphony gave the world premiere performance of George Walker’s Sinfonia No. 5, Visions, a work he composed aged 94 in 2016. Just hearing this, a beautifully constructed, eloquent 17-minute work, modern in idiom, totally individual and with masterly use of different elements of the orchestra, composed in response to the Charlottesville church bombing in 2015, left this listener with a powerful wish to hear it again, and to hear more of this composer’s long list of compositions.
Walker, who died last summer, accomplished a series of firsts in his long and distinguished life, culminating in a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1995, all of them important recognition for a fine performer, composer and teacher, but many of them firsts because he was African-American. Performances and recognition of his talents as pianist and composer were few, for the same reason. It’s our loss. Those who benefited most from his life were his students at the important colleges and universities where he taught, his worth recognized over the years with six honorary doctorates and two Guggenheim Fellowships.
Walker “is one of the greatest composers of our time” said Fanfare Magazine in 2015.
Visions, conducted at Benaroya Hall by music director designate Thomas Dausgaard, is a compact, complex work which conveys a great deal. Walker creates an aural image of lives interrupted, gentler sections often with an foreboding feel broken up by screaming discordance of drums, brass and other percussion. The work is emphatic, colorful. There are two versions of this work, the second one, performed here, has five vocalists as speakers at the side reciting words from an eclectic variety of writings and songs with veiled musical quotes, though none of the words were at all audible. A screen above the orchestra showed video of waves inexorably arriving on shore plus a slave ship and auction, cotton field workers, and more waves. The effect of the whole work is one of inevitability, restless apprehension and anxiety, but this listener opines that the first version, without speakers and video, would be equally effective. Let’s hope more of Walker’s output will be performed by the Seattle Symphony.
Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti became concertmaster of the National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain aged eight. Now 32, she has performed worldwide and has championed the violin concertos of 20th century Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. Clearly a major talent, she played the second of these following the Walker work. The soloist rarely stops playing in this busy concerto. Technically difficult, often encompassing the highest range of the instrument and with many double stops (playing more than one note at a time on different strings), much of it is extremely fast. Benedetti played with complete mastery. While the violin part is often forceful, she never pushed or scratched the sound, her intonation was impeccable throughout, her tone rich, warm and smooth, her playing shaped and the whole showing her understanding of the composer’s intent, all noticeable in the long central cadenza.
She and Dausgaard had never performed together before but they worked as one, the orchestra always exactly synchronized with her and never overpowering her sound. They were brought back several times by an enthusiastic audience.
After these two remarkable performances, hearing Antonín Dvořák’s familiar Symphony No. 9, From the New World, might have seemed ordinary. It was anything but. Dausgaard and the orchestra gave it a rare performance of color, nuance, and expression far beyond the usual, from the softest moments to brief blasts, with singing melodies including from principals, particularly Jeffrey Barker, flute, and notably from English horn player Stefan Farkas. Dausgaard used no score and no baton, and to watch his hands was a revelation. He endlessly shaped tiny details with a turn of his wrist or palm, individual fingers or a curve of his elbow, and the musicians responded to his every indication.
The large, almost sold out audience, responded with verve and enthusiasm to this and to each work on the program. This was a memorable concert. It is repeated Saturday and the Dvořák alone is performed on an Untuxed concert, Friday night.
Philippa Kiraly has writing classical music criticism since 1980, for several newspapers in northern Ohio and Seattle, magazines, both local and national, and blogs. She is passionate about the importance of independent criticism for the fine arts, an art in itself which is dying with little interest by many publications and no longer a viable career for most. But writing for tickets is always worthwhile!
Pippa is a keen gardener, a keen grandparent, and can get lost in a good book.