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Briefly Noted: Noseda's cycle of Walker sinfonias

available at Amazon
George Walker, Five Sinfonias, National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda

(released on September 29, 2023)
NSO0007D | 65'17"
Gianandrea Noseda had planned to lead a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The twist was that the NSO would perform all nine symphonies in just three weeks, beginning in late May of 2020, a plan wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic. Fate intervened further with the murder of George Floyd that month, igniting a national reaction that led the NSO and other classical music institutions into self-reflection about representative programming. The eventual cycle, led by Noseda from 2022 to 2023, was a pairing of Beethoven with symphonies by African-American composers George Walker and William Grant Still.

One of the benefits was this complete cycle of the five sinfonias of George Walker, all recorded live in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall under Noseda's fastidious baton. Remarkably, for all the effort and time involved in bringing this composite cycle to completion, this single disc clocks in at just over an hour. None of the Walker Sinfonias is longer than about fifteen minutes, and the most slender is the one the NSO itself commissioned in 2012, when the esteemed American composer was 90 years old, Sinfonia No. 4. Walker's subtitle, “Strands,” refers to the way he interwove two spiritual melodies (“There is a Balm in Gilead” and “Roll, Jordan, Roll”) almost imperceptibly into this one-movement piece, which the NSO took on its 2023 visit to Carnegie Hall. Sinfonia No. 2 stands out among the Walker symphonies for its originality, especially the short second movement (“Lamentoso e quasi senza misura”) where a mournful flute solo is accompanied by enigmatic clusters and melodic snippets from the cellos and even guitar.

Sinfonia No. 3 has a percussion-laden third movement bustling with rhythmic activity, reminscent at times of Stravinsky or Shostakovich. However, like Sinfonia No. 1 and portions of most of these pieces, a disappointing sameness and arid quality prevail. Sinfonia No. 5 ("Visions"), premiered after Walker's death in 2018, has the most overt programmatic elements of the five. While Walker was working on the piece, in 2015, a white supremacist shot and killed nine black parishioners at Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina, after which the composer added words to the symphony, spoken by a soprano, a tenor, two baritones and a bass. The composer's last symphonic statement thus took up the ongoing struggle for racial equality in the United States, made more explicit by a video by Frank Schramm shown at the premiere, including ocean scenes and photographs documenting the slave trade in Charleston.

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