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Friday, September 11, 2020

Eliot’s Elegance

From the Classical Vault Dept.: George Walker, who died in 2018 at the age of 96, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer – the first Black composer to have nabbed that prize – and pianist, who was also the first Black soloist to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Curtis Institute’s first Black graduate. And his Pulitzer-winning piece, “Lilacs,” setting a Lincoln eulogy by Walt Whitman, should be a mandated substitute for Aaron Copland’s odiously puerile “Lincoln Portrait.” Below, we travel back to 1987 and my review of a performance by Albany’s Capitol Chamber Artists, who championed Walker’s work.


THERE SHOULD BE A LAW banning frivolous settings of T. S. Eliot’s poems. And there should be a national celebration when a thoughtful setting comes along that does justice to Eliot’s work.

George Walker
Photo by Frank Schramm

In which case composer George Walker would be hoisted upon shoulders for his brand-new setting of "The Hollow Men."

Capitol Chamber Artists premiered the work this weekend, locally at Page Hall in Albany last night. Walker’s “Poem for Soprano and Chamber Orchestra” is more than just a chamber piece, however. With its surprising theatrical touches and disquieting voice, it is a completely appropriate and thought-provoking interpretation of the text.

Scoring is for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, guitar, piano, harpsichord and percussion battery; in addition to the soprano two speakers (human, not electronic) are required.

Soprano Mary Anne Ross entered in whiteface, an old felt hat on her head, a blanket grasped round her waist. She carried a plastic bag bulging with street-life stuff.

Michael Murphy, one of the speakers, was ragged and unshaven and wore a woolen watch cap. He uttered the poem’s epigraph (from Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”) as the music began.

This isn’t a work that offers its own melodies. The music is lifted from the words in the poem, from the twists that Walker’s ear has discerned. It might not be the music you and I here, but one of the biggest challenges Eliot offers is diversity of interpretation.

The music was fragmented, constantly shifting in tempo. Little bursts tossed from instrument to instrument as Ross began the first stanza.

Each of the five sections shifted a little in character, as the poem suggests. Many violent, unpleasant words are cloaked in Eliot’s elegance, and Walker’s setting sought and realized that violence.

This is the dream-poem of a person too desperately unhappy to put thoughts into words, and that feeling of having ventured into a dream was supported by the eerie shifts in the music, the same sense you have when a high fever causes your thoughts to shimmer into dreams.

In the end, the thoughts are fragmented enough that Janet Rowe, the second speaker, murmured a poetic counterpoint behind the famous closing lines.

It’s no easy task to perform a score like this one: credit goes not only to conductor Angelo Frascarelli but also to each member of the ensemble. Percussionists Richard Albagli and Scott Stacey moved like wizards; Malcolm Kogut was dexterous in his keyboard work as he shifted from piano to harpsichord and back again.

Irvin Gilman and Charles Stancampiano played the wind instruments; strings were Mary Lou Saetta and Douglas Moore. Sam Farkas was the guitarist.

Walker’s “Poem,” commissioned by CCA in conjunction with a consortium of other chamber groups, is a devastating work, deserving of greater attention.

This premiere is one of the more prestigious occasions that Albany has overlooked lately.

The program of this concert took some shifts since it was announced last autumn. Beethoven’s Serenade in D Major, Op. 25, was moved to front of the program, and presented Gilman, Saetta and Rowe on flute, violin and viola in a five-movement work very much in the classical tradition.

It’s a fun piece of occasional music, already showing the whimsy that Beethoven would make the most of in later compositions. It was the right choice, too, to warm the audience up for the Walker work that began the second half.

From there on in it was all enjoyable fluff. Heitor Villa-Lobos seems to have written something for every possible combination of instruments: “Distribution of the Flowers” is for flute and guitar, and Gilman and Farkas had a ball with it.

Gilman, Saetta and Kogut joined forces for two short works: a minuet by Haydn and a rondo by Mozart, the latter a “Turkish dance” that featured Gilman’s sprightly piccolo.

And the conclusion was downright hilarious. Adolphe Adam, a Frenchman with romance in his heart, fiddled with Mozart’s variations on the tune we know as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to provide a soprano showcase, the kind of deal you would have heard at a “society” dinner party as the special guest showed off her tonsils.

With Kogut at the piano, Gilman and Ross took turns (with flute and voice) dancing through these fanciful variations, complete with a voice-busting cadenza before the big finish.

All in all, this was program of contrast and delight.  

– Schenectady Gazette, 9 February 1987

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