Musicians provide strong advocacy for George Walker’s music

By Lawrence Budmen

Music of composer George Walker was performed Friday night at Gusman Concert Hall.

Music of composer George Walker was performed Friday night at Gusman Concert Hall. Photo: Frank Schramm

Concerts devoted to the works of a single American composer are a rare occurrence in South Florida. Credit Kaleidescope MusArt and the UM Frost School of Music with adventurousness for their presentation of “George Walker at 95,” a retrospective of the nonagenarian’s solo piano and violin works, Friday night at Gusman Concert Hall.

Walker studied piano at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute with no less than Rudolf Serkin and composition with Rosario Scalero who also taught Samuel Barber. In 1945 he became that august conservatory’s first African-American graduate. He was also the first black instrumentalist to appear as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Walker has taught at numerous music schools including a 23-year tenure at Rutgers University.

As the concert demonstrated, Walker’s compositional output has been uneven. The program’s main focus was the performance of all five of Walker’s piano sonatas by Redi Llupa, a 2016 Frost doctoral graduate who has worked closely with the composer and devoted his doctoral research to a study of Walker’s keyboard sonatas. 

These are daunting works for the performer, filled with pianistic minefields. Llupa has clearly mastered their challenges. His formidable technique was matched by a real affinity and sensitivity for each sonata’s distinctive musical voice. In fact, his performances were superior to the composer’s own recordings of the scores (available on YouTube).

Although the sonatas, written over a 50-year span, were not played in chronological sequence, Walker’s initial forays in the genre. were the strongest works represented  The Sonata No. 1 (1953), which closed the evening, opens in a quasi-Impressionist manner. The glints of color, alternately soft and bold, played to Llupa’s sensitive impulses. In the Theme and Variations (second movement), a folklike melody is taken through rhapsodic, bouncy and capricious episodes before returning quietly. Llupa tackled teh fast hand crossings with skill and panache. The Allegro con brio finale is an all-out Russian-infused romp that is wonderfully entertaining.

Redi Llupa

Redi Llupa

There is greater chromaticism in the Sonata No. 2 (1956), especially the edgy variations of the first movement and the moody Adagio. Llupa brought fleet articulation to the jazzy Presto. The final Allegretto tranquillo was hardly tranquil–more like Gershwin on steroids with rapid arpeggiated leaps across the keyboard.

The Third Sonata (1975, revised 1996) finds Walker falling into the atonality that characterized the work of academic composers in the 1950′s, 60′s and 70′s. Llupa made the most of the repeated, ever louder solemn chords of the second movement. The work is redeemed by a playful Choral and Fughetta finale. The final note, after being struck at full force, fades into silence. 

By the Sonatas Nos. 4 (1984) and 5 (2003), Walker was writing in an unremittingly bleak, harsh idiom. These two works are arid essays that are more interesting for technical hurdles than their turgid content. Llupa made the best case possible with communicative playing and a wonderfully varied dynamic palette that brought variety and range to the five scores.

Gregory Walker. Photo: Ian Walker

Gregory Walker. Photo: Ian Walker

Gregory Walker, the composer’s son, is a violinist, guitarist, composer, professor at the University of Colorado Denver and concertmaster of the Boulder Philharmonic. He is definitely a violinist to be reckoned with. Two of his father’s compositions played to both Walkers’ strengths. Bleau (2011) for unaccompanied violin is a blues-tinged Paganini-style etude that combines portamento slides and rapid-fire fiddling in quick succession, at times having the soloist play on all strings at once. Playing with heavy vibrato, Gregory Walker exhibited flawless intonation. This brief score is a real showpiece and would make a great post-concerto encore.

Walker was joined by pianist and Frost faculty member Oleksii Ivanchenko for George Walker’s Violin Sonata No. 1 (1958), a single movement that opens in an unabashedly schmaltzy manner before skipping to neo-Baroque riffs, a spirited scherzo episode and a long-spun final section with a melodic line right out of the Prokofiev playbook. An immensely appealing work, the score displayed Walker’s fiery and lithe technique and Ivanchenko’s finely colored, intensely focused pianism. The two artists were admirably in synch and adept at capturing the work’s lyricism.

The concert was preceded by “Discovering George Walker,” a video by filmmaker Frank Schramm featuring comments by the composer and snippets from some of his orchestral works. Excerpts from his 2008 Violin Concerto were particularly intriguing. An audience that seemed to consist largely of Frost students, alumni and faculty wildly applauded and cheered the entire program.

The Kaleidoscope MusArt series continues with “Bird Spirits” 5 p.m. October 21 at the Steinway Piano Gallery in Coral Gables. kaleidoscopemusart.com

 

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