Still, Walker and Brahms resonate at the hangar
Only in recent years has the orchestra begun to perform works by musicians of color at any frequency. Sunday’s program under the direction of Andris Nelsons included two compositions by black composers William Grant Still (1895-1974) and George Walker (1922-2018) which the orchestra had performed decades ago. The second half of the concert allowed us to hear in a particularly satisfying way one of those “dead white composers” who have been the meat and potatoes of the symphonic kitchen: Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. hands of the splendid and poetic young Seong-Jin Choin. in his Tanglewood debut (he appeared at Symphony Hall in March 2020).
Always composed In Memoriam: Soldiers of Color Who Died for Democracy during World War II to one of a series of commissions from the League of Composers in New York for patriotic orchestral works to be presented by the New York Philharmonic and then widely distributed to troops and civilians as widely as possible. The Boston Symphony performed it in January 1945 under guest conductor George Szell; Seiji Ozawa made it as part of the 1995-96 season which included many works composed during the war, on the 50e anniversary of its conclusion. Still’s a short tone-poem employs tones suggestive of military funerals (bands, drum rolls, ringing bells – all muted) as well as poignant melodies suggesting the spirit of black spirituals to vindicate the specific soldiers commemorated – an ironic point , because American soldiers were fighting to free the victims of tyranny when they themselves weren’t truly free at home. The pathos of the work still marks 80 years after its creation.
Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for LilacA BSO commission that the orchestra premiered in 1996. The text consists of four passages from Walt Whitman’s lamentation over the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, When the lilacs last in the gate yard have bloomed, a poem that highlights the contrast between national mourning over death in mid-April 1865 and the fresh glow of blooming lilacs. Two previous composers, Paul Hindemith and Roger Sessions, had put the poem into unabridged versions lasting about an hour. Walker’s score is considerably more ‘modern’ than Still’s, but is shaped by melodic imagery that suggests lamentations contrasted with floral ‘flowers’ in both the instrumental parts and the vocal line. Soprano Latonia Moore soared richly in the sweeping lines, though when the voice got really low she tended to be drowned out by the orchestra, probably due to the wallless expanse of the Tanglewood Shed. Nevertheless, this second BSO performance of Lilac gave real satisfaction.
Young Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho’s poetic interpretation of Brahms’ massive but lyrical Second Piano Concerto had a wonderful effect. Not yet 30 years old, he won the first prize at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw at the age of 21. There he demonstrates a marvelous mastery of the legao from the first arpeggios that rise from the bottom of the piano over more than five octaves, each ending in quietly lingering bell tones. The soft sweetness of the opening asserts itself dramatically when its cadence seizes the whole orchestra. Despite the concerto’s size and its heavy feel, Cho’s rapid contrasts retained a softness even as it dominated at its most intense moments. The BSO accompanied it with elegance, notably with major solos bringing a contrasting color and character to the piano: James Somerville’s horn, John Ferillo’s oboe and Blaise Déjardin’s cello. The driving ‘little scherzo’ which Brahms placed in second position led to the sweet pain of the Andante. A rather brisk — but not too — movement pushes the finale to its almost understated conclusion.
After tumultuous applause, Seong-Jin Cho performed with an encore in stark contrast to Brahms’ giant score: a relaxed Sarabande from Handel’s Fourth Suite.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and speaker on music. He received his BA from Pomona College and his Ph.D. from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became a program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.