Ian Hobson / Sinfonia Varsovia

George Walker: Great American Orchestral Works, Vol. 1

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Often dubbed the dean of African-American composers and the first one to win the Pulitzer Prize in music, George Walker has written music in many media. But it is his orchestral music that has consistently shown up on concert programs since the 1960s, especially notable in view of the economic obstacles in writing modern music for full symphony orchestra. He is one of the few academic composers to command consistent attention in that most public of media. It's easy to hear why orchestras like Walker; he is a master handler of the brass and wind sections, allowing these players to hold the spotlight with long passages that are precise yet often quite evocative. His music makes use of abstract formal procedures with limited recourse to tonal centers, but the formal markers are local and cumulative in effect; an attentive audience will follow what's going on. Walker's music neither ignores the material of African-American history nor takes it as definitive. The opening Address for Orchestra, finished in 1959, refers in a general way to Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," and Hoopla (A Touch of Glee), commissioned for the centennial of the city of Las Vegas in 2005, contains a hard-to-recognize quotation of a tune by Fats Waller. An attractive feature of Walker's music is his avoidance of trends; the pieces here span his entire creative life, and the later ones, though a bit denser, are made of the same stuff. This release is especially recommended to students specifically interested in Walker's music; the booklet notes, though uncredited, must be by either Walker himself or by someone closely connected to him, for they contain such insider information as the observation that the brevity of the Sinfonia No. 1 for orchestra "can be attributed in part to the skimpiness of the commission fee." Beyond that, Poland's Sinfonia Varsovia under British conductor Ian Hobson acquits itself decently in what must have been difficult and unfamiliar music, and any listener wanting to make a start with contemporary African-American music in the concert tradition might do well to select this release.

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