The powerful romanticism that comes with late-period works was unavoidable at the world premiere of George Walker's
Thursday by the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Though written two years ago, the concerto was unveiled as the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, long associated with Philadelphia in many capacities, looks forward to his 88th birthday.
You couldn't help but expect something cumulative and wise, especially from this inspirational figure in the African American community. But how about just a straightforward violin concerto? That's what I heard, though impressions are provisional pending more hearings in sturdier performances.
The performance circumstances, in fact, have been a point of contention. A projected Carnegie Hall premiere was postponed when the composer insisted on his choice of soloists, his violinist son Gregory Walker, concertmaster of the Boulder Philharmonic. With him and rock-solid guest conductor Neeme Jarvi on Thursday, the composer could be assured that his musical wishes were carried out.
Yet only the third movement emerged among Walker's best pieces. It's full of intermingling incidents - a fugue, repeated, enigmatic knocks at the door - that spoke to intriguing programmatic undercurrents. The ending had no bromides: The muscular chords kept threatening to reach some conventionally tonal conclusion but never did. Did this train of musical thought simply defy conclusion? Or was there a bitterness that couldn't, in all creative honesty, be resolved?
Emphatic ambiguity - if there is such a thing - is the nature of this beast, and was also heard at the conclusions of the previous movements with piquant, over-before-you-know-it endings. But in other respects, the first two movements were disappointingly similar: Orchestra and soloist took turns with a predictability that set in early, particularly in the first movement. Much of the violin writing was repetitively spiraling sequences of notes. The episodes built on each other like a soliloquy, though young Walker's characterization of the music was so conservative that the music's meaning seemed just out of reach.
The second half had an hour-long orchestral suite of Wagner's four-part, 16-hour Ring cycle assembled by Henk de Vlieger, subtitled "An Orchestral Adventure." Since the Philadelphia Orchestra sound flatters Wagner immensely, one should be perfectly happy with this, especially with hot incidental solos by hornist Jennifer Montone. Laudably, conductor Jarvi builds his big Wagnerian sound pictures from telling details.
But the current vogue for Wagner without voices is growing tiresome. The nature of a suite dictates that the more descriptive Ring passages are heard. But the greatness of the Ring lies in vows, curses, and awakenings in more internal moments. Without them, the suite is like a posh aircraft circling endlessly over the Rhine River (the opera's central setting) - in what becomes an act of institutionalized superficiality.