Dispatches from Detroit (by Mark Stryker)

Mark Stryker writes:

As a music critic with the Detroit Free Press since 1995, I’ve had the privilege to hear and write about George Walker’s music more than most of my colleagues. The reason is simple: Surely no major American orchestra has played more of Walker’s music in recent decades than the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In fact, no major American orchestra has more forcefully championed the full breadth of African-American classical composers than the DSO. Long before I arrived in Detroit, the orchestra’s then-resident conductor Paul Freeman led a pioneering Black Composer Series of nine LPs on Columbia in the 1970s. Two of these records were with the DSO and included Walker’s Piano Concerto (with soloist Natalie Hinderas) along with pieces by Hale Smith, Roque Cordero and Adolphus Hailstork. Walker’s Trombone Concerto was included in another volume with the Baltimore Symphony and soloist Dennis Wick.

This year marked the 35th anniversary of the DSO’s annual Classical Roots concerts that celebrate black composers and performers. Moreover, the orchestra has always folded black composers into its programming throughout the entire subscription season, as opposed to only segregating them into set-aside concerts tied to Black History Month. Past music director Neeme Jarvi programmed and recorded music by Olly Wilson, William Levi Dawson, William Grant Still (whose blues-tinged Symphony No. 1 Jarvi and the DSO took to Europe on tour in 1998), Alvin Singleton, Anthony Davis, Duke Ellington and Jonathan Holland. Current music director Leonard Slatkin has championed James Lee III, who represents a younger generation of African-American composers writing for orchestra. Finally, past DSO initiatives have included symposiums, competitions and reading sessions devoted to black composers.

I’ve compiled articles and reviews that touch directly on Walker’s music, quote him directly or address issues related to black classical composers. All material originally appeared in the Detroit Free Press. Please excuse a certain amount of repetition of language, context and ideas since these pieces were written over many years and never meant to be consumed together.

Classically Black (1997)

Composer Hale Smith still hasn’t forgotten the 30-year-old sting of a critic who wrote that blacks simply didn’t possess the intellect to master the complex art of writing classical music. Negative reviews are an occupational hazard. So is Eurocentrism. But Aaron Copland never had to deal with the rant of a racist.

This was in the late ’60s, just one presidential campaign removed from the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 that finally killed Jim Crow. Today, America continues its Odyssey- like struggle with race, the black-and-white politics of government-sanctioned segregation replaced by the vexing grays of affirmative action, board room racism and urban poverty. And black composers like Smith — whose works have been played or recorded by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra and Louisville Orchestra — still struggle for the recognition and respect their music deserves.

The DSO places the issues facing black composers under the microscope this week with the eighth Unisys African-American Composer Residency & National Symposium and the orchestra’s annual Classical Roots concerts. Smith is one of three prominent composers, along with Noel Da Costa of New York and Alvin Singleton of Atlanta, who will join members of the electronic media and others in a panel discussion Thursday.

“It is no longer possible for any musicologist to argue with a straight face that the work of these people is inferior,” says Smith, 71, of Freeport, N.Y. “No one who has taken the trouble to listen to or study a score by George Walker, Adolphus Hailstork, Olly Wilson, Ulysses Kay, Howard Swanson or me, can claim that these people don’t know their business. That being true, the exclusion of many of these people from concert programs and many of the history books is less than honest. I’m convinced that these men and others have written music that can serve at least as well in our cultural marketplace and at least as well as sources of knowledge in our classrooms.”

Some progress since the 1960s is undeniable. More music by blacks is programmed by orchestras today, though it’s typically ghettoized into Black History Month events and set- aside concerts. A few black composers can afford to live exclusively off their commissions where none could a generation ago. Walker, 74, became the first black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1996. But the rich heritage of black classical composers remains largely invisible, buried beneath generations of racism, ignorance and cultural politics reluctant to recognize the miscegenation of American culture. Equality in the concert hall, like wider social justice, remains as elusive as the highest aspirations of American democracy itself.

“We shouldn’t delude ourselves in thinking that because it’s better for me, it’s better for everyone,” says Singleton, 56, the Unisys composer-in-residence and one of the most widely commissioned American composers. “Someone among us is always doing a little bit better, but they all aren’t.”

The DSO, more than any other American orchestra, has been in the forefront of drawing attention to black composers. In the ’70s, the DSO participated in a nine-LP black composer series on Columbia while recent recordings have featured William Grant Still, Duke Ellington and William Dawson. The Unisys residencies, symposiums and competitions have drawn national attention. This year, the DSO has programmed three works by blacks: Still’s “Lenox Avenue” Suite and Ellington’s “Three Black Kings” appear on this week’s concerts, while Singleton’s “BluesKonzert,” co-commissioned by the DSO, appears on subscription concerts Feb. 14-15. Singleton will also spend several weeks working with local public school students.

Three works through an entire season sounds like a trickle but it’s a comparative flood. Consider this: Only five total pieces by blacks have been programmed for 1996-97 by the New York and Los Angeles philharmonics, Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh symphonies. Black composers are quick to point out that they face the same obstacles that stymie all American composers, even if the legacy of oppression intensifies their plight.

Classical music has little to do with the daily listening habits of most Americans. And most American orchestras continue to genuflect in front of the alter of 18th- and 19th-Century European music, reluctant to irk conservative subscribers in a volatile arts environment.

A recent American Symphony Orchestra League survey showed that Mozart appeared on twice as many concert programs as the top 10 performed Americans combined. “You can’t keep programming a steady diet of the same thing over and over,” Singleton says.

Contemporary music is the key to survival of orchestras because it reconnects audiences with the sounds and rhythms of their own age, Singleton says. The problem for most listeners is that they aren’t used to the way those sounds are organized. “We’re living in a time in which people are not willing to figure anything out, and that’s a problem,” he says.

There’s a trickle-down argument at work here: If American composers do better, so will blacks. But as Smith is quick to note, everyone will sink if America continues on its current cultural course. Twenty years of cuts in music education have left millions of potential symphony-goers musically illiterate, while government arts support appears headed for a plot next to the dinosaurs. Smith argues that black composers specifically won’t prosper until their contributions are understood by critics, scholars and orchestra leaders as integral to the sound of American classical music. On one level, that means recognizing that narrowly conceived affirmative action initiatives may marginalize black composers to the periphery of concert life, and that classical music by blacks is as stylistically diverse as that by whites.

On a deeper level, it means recognizing that American classical music — like all American culture — is richly mulatto in texture. As author Eileen Southern points out in The Music of Black Americans (Norton), one of the most important and influential early 19th-Century band masters and composers was a black Philadelphian named Frank Johnson.

In the 20th Century, ragtime and jazz rhythms and blues intervals infused the concert music of Ives, Copland, Sessions and countless others. Less obviously, the minimalist repetitions of John Adams and Steve Reich faintly echo the moaning melodic contour of black music, and Elliott Carter’s fierce rhythmic energy can be heard as a highly abstract reflection of the polyrhythmic play of jazz. Of course, American classical music is also based on European models, white religious music and vernacular styles. American composers of any color, to paraphrase social critic Stanley Crouch, can feel the European, the Negro, the Irish, the Jewish, the Italian, the Asian or the cowboy rise up, depending on the stimulus.

But today, black composers still labor in a cultural environment in which George Walker can win the Pulitzer Prize, but no mention of his name appears in John Warthen Struble’s comprehensive textbook “The History of American Classical Music: MacDowell Through Minimalism,” published in 1995. “What I say,” says Smith, “is let everybody take their lumps equally.”

Sphinx Celebrates Black Composers of Classical Music (2004)

Aaron Dworkin founded the Sphinx Competition for black and Latino string players to redress the minuscule numbers of minorities in classical music. Personal experience drove home the point: He was almost always the only black in his school orchestras growing up in New York.

But the Sphinx Competition, which runs Wednesday through Sunday in Ann Arbor and Detroit, has another mission with roots in Dworkin’s past: Not until he reached the University of Michigan did he learn that African Americans wrote classical music.

Music by minority composers is woven into the fabric of the competition, from pieces students are required to learn to works performed at the finals concert by the all-black-and-Latino professional Sphinx Symphony. This year, music by William Grant Still, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson and Howard Swanson will sit next to standard competition fare by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Bruch. “If I would have known about this music when I was younger, I would have been a lot more engaged, because I did feel disconnected from a lot of the things I played,” says Dworkin, 33.

The rich heritage of black composers remains largely buried beneath generations of racism, ignorance and cultural politics. Most orchestras rarely program black composers, with exceptions often segregated to Black History Month in February. The vast amount of chamber music and solo literature by blacks also remains a secret, except among a few enlightened musicians, teachers and record collectors.

The Sphinx Competition is not the only local institution shining a spotlight on black composers this month. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra will present its 26th annual Classical Roots concerts on Feb. 28 and 29. Led by DSO resident conductor Thomas Wilkins, the program includes Still’s rarely heard Fourth Symphony alongside pieces by Ulysses Kay and Adolphus Hailstork. “Only when this music becomes a regular part of what we do can we get to the point where it no longer has to be singled out as special or unique,” says Wilkins.

At the Sphinx Competition, now in its seventh year, students compete in senior and junior divisions for $100,000 in cash and scholarships. Winners also receive recital opportunities and solo appearances with orchestras nationwide. Industry figures show that blacks and Latinos currently make up just 3 percent of American orchestra musicians.

Requiring competitors to learn pieces by black composers increases the chance of those works showing up on post-Sphinx recitals. But a crucial trickle-down effect extends to teachers and accompanists, who can pass the music on to others. Moreover, the finals concert reaches an audience that includes orchestra leaders. Mary Steffek Blaske, executive director of the Ann Arbor Symphony, says no black classical composers were on her radar until she heard Still’s neo-romantic, blues-tinged Symphony No. 1 (“Afro-American”) at a Sphinx concert. Still (1895-1978) was the first black composer to have his music played by a leading American orchestra, the Rochester (N.Y.) Philharmonic in 1931.

“This was a revelation to us,” she says.

Blaske and colleagues at the Ann Arbor Symphony began exploring music libraries for scores and recordings by other black composers. The search led directly to the symphony performing David Baker’s Jazz Suite for Clarinet and Orchestra in 1999.

Sphinx leaders commissioned Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson to write Symphony of the Sphinx with texts by Nikki Giovanni in 2002. This year, the finals concert includes two movements from Perkinson’s unaccompanied violin piece Blue/s Forms. The soloist will be Sanford Allen, who in 1962 became the first black musician in the New York Philharmonic.

The longevity of the Classical Roots concerts underscores that no American orchestra has done more to promote black composers than the DSO. The orchestra began recording African-American works in the 1970s when then-resident conductor Paul Freeman (an African-American) led a pioneering black composers series on the Columbia label. The DSO has performed music by dozens of black composers. Music director Neeme Jarvi has programmed and recorded works by Still, William Levi Dawson, Olly Wilson, Anthony Davis, Duke Ellington and others. Jarvi took Still’s First Symphony to Europe on the DSO’s 1998 tour.

While the Classical Roots concerts are tied to Black History Month, the concerts have also been part of the subscription series for 15 years, rather than relegated to less important status. The DSO also performs black composers throughout the year and showcases a range of styles, not just music that references African-American idioms like jazz or gospel. Last month, the orchestra gave the world premiere of George Walker’s austerely neo-classic Sinfonia No. 3. The concerts later this month include Ulysses Kay’s Serenade for Orchestra, an abstract modernist work.

“Many orchestras think that a black audience will only come for music with overtly African elements,” says Walker. “I find this view offensive. The most important thing is to select music of the highest quality that will have something to say to the audience.”

At 81, Walker — the first black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize (1996) — says that it’s still a struggle to get his music performed, though he does admit that the orchestral world has generally become more open to new music in the last 25 years. Not even winning the Pulitzer has increased demand significantly; he’s received two commissions in the wake of the award. Walker points to the Sphinx Competition and the DSO as models but notes that Detroit can’t carry the burden for all.

“There should be an attempt to make people realize there’s an enormous diversity in American music. It’s not just an orchestra problem. It’s a problem of textbooks, conductors, critics. There are a lot of different perspectives being compounded that seem to marginalize black composers.”

[Postscript: Sphinx founder Aaron Dworkin was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2005.]

DSO, Walker give fine premiere (2004)

There were several reasons to applaud the world premiere of George Walker’s Sinfonia No. 3 on Friday morning, beginning with the rugged expressiveness of the score. But there was also the satisfaction of witnessing another chapter in the long friendship between Walker, 81, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

The ties to Walker — the first African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize — stretch back to the ’70s and a landmark recording of his Piano Concerto. The DSO later premiered his Sinfonia No. 2 and recently performed his Trombone Concerto and Lyric for Strings. In 2001 the orchestra also gave him a lifetime achievement award.

The composer was on hand to hear Friday’s premiere, led by guest conductor Andrey Boreyko. The piece lasts 16 minutes and unfolds in three tightly constructed, terse movements. Walker favors muscular, thrusting gestures that build into a brassy mass and give way to quiet but restless energy. An expertly controlled sway of tension and release is heard throughout. This is not Walker’s most melodic piece; a languid oboe opens the middle movement, but it’s long forgotten by the clangorous finale. Still, the music’s viscera and dark prism of colors suggests how feisty Walker’s voice remains even in his 80s.

DSO embraces Pulitzer winner’s work (2001)

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra deepened an old friendship during the weekend by presenting George Walker, the first African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize, with a lifetime achievement award and performing his Trombone Concerto.

The occasion was the orchestra’s annual Classical Roots concerts, which honor black composers and musicians. The ties between Walker and the DSO reach back at least to the 1970s and a recording of the composer’s Piano Concerto. The DSO later premiered Walker’s Sinfonia No. 2. Walker, 78, surely appreciated the gifts DSO leaders bestowed upon him during a ceremony Saturday, but there’s no more meaningful reward for a composer than a commitment to his music.

The Trombone Concerto (1957) reveals Walker’s penchant for sinewy melodies, neoclassical forms and an exciting sway of tension and release. The music is muscular and abstract but never dry, partly because Walker pits the soloist in constant dialogue with subgroups of the orchestra.
DSO principal trombonist Ken Thompkins was an exceptional soloist, playing with a buttery sound and liquid legato that connected the wide-interval melodies into arcs of lyricism. He then played the darting rhythms so gracefully it called up the ghost of the late jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson. Guest conductor Raymond Harvey kept the soloist and orchestra in careful balance. Harvey’s reading of Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration was also carefully plotted but ultimately sounded routine and underweight.

More troubling was Joseph Schwantner’s New Morning for the World, a setting of seven famous excerpts from speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The piece may be a good civics lesson, but it is lousy art. King’s words — movingly read by actor Danny Glover — are drowned in cliches of bombastic percussion, mawkish strings and film-score brass that have the effect of trivializing rather than amplifying King’s profound message. The best way an orchestra can honor King’s memory is to program more quality music by black composers like Walker — and not just during Black History Month but all season long.

CD Review (2001)

George Walker — “Lilacs: The Music of George Walker.” Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra; ASU Symphony; Faye Robinson, soprano; Gregory Walker, violin; etc. (Summit)

… A new recording surveys Walker’s orchestral and chamber-music scores, including Lilacs for voice and orchestra, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996. (He was the first black composer to win the award). Also included are the Second String Quartet (1968), the Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 (1979), 1999’s Wind Set for woodwind quintet and Tangents for chamber orchestra.

Walker writes muscular music that is full of free dissonance and sinewy textures. He is open to a variety of styles and techniques while ideologically beholden to none. He might allude to black vernacular music, but in an abstracted manner. The melismatic flourishes of soprano Faye Robinson in “Lilacs” wink at gospel traditions, and the final movement interpolates a lovely phrase from a spiritual that is then subsumed into Walker’s language.

Though always well crafted, Walker’s music sometimes falls into a kind of gray academic modernism. Wind Set suggests a bottled neoclassic tartness, and the highly compressed Tangents suggests more perspiration than inspiration. Yet the Second Violin Sonata is full of thorny but expressive ideas that blossom with repeated listenings. At his best, Walker underscores sharp angles with an affecting but unsentimental lyric thrust. In Lilacs, written on a text by Walt Whitman that honors the slain Abraham Lincoln, the melodies soar above the orchestra like the star and bird symbols in the text.

CD Review (1998)

George Walker — “Poeme for Violin and Orchestra,” etc. Cleveland Chamber Symphony; Edwin London, conductor (Albany)

Various artists — “Dark Fires: 20th Century Music for Piano,” music by Lettie Beckon Alston, Hale Smith, Adolphus Hailstork, etc. Karen Walwyn, piano (Albany)

Various artists — “20th Century Visions: Vol. 1,” music by Hailstork, Wendell Logan, Peter Saltzman, etc.; Czech National Symphony Orchestra; Paul Freeman, conductor (A&R)

Various artists — “Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries,” Encore Chamber Orchestra; Daniel Hege, conductor; Rachel Barton, violin (Cedille)

… An inspection of four new recordings devoted to black composers, living and dead, betrays styles so diverse — Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Dvorak-inspired romanticism, Adolphus Hailstork’s contemporary neoclassicism, George Walker’s use of free dissonance, Peter Saltzman’s jazz-pop-classical fusion — that the idea of a single black classical identity seems laughable. Which is not to say that jazz, blues and spirituals have not left an indelible imprint on American concert music.

In fact, that’s the point: Black aesthetics are American aesthetics and vice versa. American composers of all ethnic stripes are free to draw upon any influence or vernacular, European or otherwise, as they see fit. Today, the musical language itself matters less than a composer’s originality with the vocabulary.

George Walker, 75, the first black composer to win a Pulitzer Prize (in 1996), never fails to put an individual stamp on his music — no matter how eclectic the materials. Despite the Pulitzer, Walker remains underrated, so this Albany survey is especially noteworthy. His Lyric for Strings (1946) is warm and comfortable in the manner of mid-century Americana symphonists, while the brilliantly scored Poeme for Violin and Orchestra (1991) is full of sharp angles and ambiguous harmony. The unabashedly romantic Folk Songs for Orchestra is based on spirituals, while Orpheus winks at Stravinsky and perhaps even Webern. Yet both pieces are pure Walker. He even weaves snippets of “Tea for Two” into the collage-like, dramatic textures of Serenata for Chamber Orchestra, premiered in Detroit by the defunct Michigan Chamber Orchestra in 1983.

Local connections also abound in pianist Karen Walwyn’s Dark Fires, a fine collection of contemporary piano music: Walwyn teaches at the University of Michigan. Lettie Beckon Alston, associate professor of music at Oakland University, is represented by her Three Rhapsodies for Piano, an energetic work bursting with colorful details and a lyric slow movement, all channeled through an impressive economy of means. Elsewhere, Hailstork’s prickly Sonata treats the piano as a set of tuned drums — a common theme in this CD — and seamlessly blends blues and spiritual-based episodes into a wide-ranging modernism.

Even when the music isn’t especially compelling, the subtext may be fascinating. The dominant impression left by the Cedille disc of 18th- and 19th-Century violin concertos is that black composers could be as imitative of Mozart, Brahms and Dvorak as most everyone else. Still, it’s a valuable reminder that African-descended Europeans and Englishmen — Chevailier de Saint-Georges, Coleridge-Taylor, Joseph White — have been writing well-crafted music in classical idioms for 220 years. Just because the history books usually flip past the music doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

DSO mentoring sessions help composers refine their work (1998)

Moments after the Detroit Symphony Orchestra finishes rehearsing Trevor Weston’s moody tone poem Bleue, the 30-year-old Weston and veteran composer Olly Wilson dissect the score, rehashing what worked well and what might be tweaked.

“There were a few places you used vibraphone where marimba would work better because it would give you a more precise sound,” Wilson says. Weston nods his head before heaping praise on the DSO musicians, who have just finished sight-reading his piece. “The difference between a professional orchestra and a student orchestra is that once they make a mistake and you go back and fix it, it stays fixed,” he says.

It’s Sunday morning at Orchestra Hall, where Weston is one of four emerging black composers invited to participate in a reading session in conjunction with the Unisys African American Composers Residency and Symposium. Now in its ninth year, the program is designed to promote the recognition, study and performance of new music by black Americans.
The composers, who have traveled from as far away as California and Colorado, will leave Detroit with an honor to add to their resumes and a tape they can shop around to other ensembles. Moreover, someone listening Sunday — perhaps guest conductor Kay George Roberts or Bob Goldfarb, executive director of the New York-based American Composers Alliance — might like a piece enough to become its ambassador.

“I hope this might be a stepping-stone to wider acceptance,” says composer Calvin M. Taylor, 49, of Bowling Green, Ky.

At the very least, the experience of hearing their music live will sharpen each composer’s ear. So will the instruction from Wilson, 60, the 1998 Unisys visiting composer. A longtime professor at the University of California-Berkeley, Wilson’s music has been widely performed by leading orchestras and chamber groups.

The DSO performed Wilson’s Stravinsky-like Shango Memory at last week’s subscription concerts. He’ll return to Detroit on several occasions in the coming months to visit schools, work with the DSO Civic Orchestra and participate in a symposium Feb. 21. In Wilson’s salad days in the 1960s, black composers often faced hostility from the musical establishment, both from orchestras which ignored their music and commentators who suggested blacks were incapable of mastering the art of writing classical music. The overt racism of the past has disappeared, but a crop of dubious assumptions flower in its place, including the notion that the only authentic black music is that which draws specifically on blues, jazz or gospel elements.

Some of the music heard Sunday evinced vernacular influences; some didn’t. The next generation of black composers, like all American composers in our age, is a strikingly diverse lot, reflecting a plethora of individual styles and influences. Calvin Taylor writes in a neo-romantic, conservative style; his Inner-City Sunrise is all lush string melody, warm harmony and predictable melodic and dynamic climaxes.

At the other extreme, Gregory T. S. Walker’s Micro*Phone for Amplified Orchestra is largely experimental, with darting blips of music and cricket-like clicks of indeterminate pitch. Walker, 36, is the son of George Walker, the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for composition in 1996. Not surprisingly, the DSO players embrace Taylor’s familiar-sounding music, lurching into the piece with gusto, but they struggle with Walker’s avant-garde language. Walker studied computer music both at the University of California-San Diego and Mills College in Oakland and he seems to mimic processed sounds with conventional instruments. Bows drag across violin wood; brass players smack kisses into their mouthpieces. At one point, players even yowl with their own voices. Wacky, yes, but strikingly effective at times.

“They’re really doing a heroic job, but for a wilder approach to composition, it’s really difficult to introduce new ideas in such limited rehearsal time,” says Walker. “The challenge we never have time to meet is not only learning how to produce the unusual sounds but practice them so that they make musical sense.”

Henry A. Heard’s Notations falls somewhere between Taylor’s traditional craftsmanship, Walker’s risky explorations and Weston’s gently syncopated marriage of intellect and feeling. At 53, Heard is the eldest of the Unisys composers. Chicago-based, he’s also the only one of the four without doctoral-level training in music. For Heard, composition is an intense avocation; his day job is as a systems analyst consultant. Performances are rare and Heard is relishing the opportunity to have a first-rate orchestra play his music.

“I feel like a little kid at Christmas,” he says.

George Walker Triptych:

1) Interview with George Walker

2) Three Scarecrows

3) Dispatches from Detroit (by Mark Stryker)