The Italian conductor and music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington talks to IDAGIO about his new recordings of George Walker's sinfonias, released on the orchestra's own label.
The Walker Sinfonias – they're amazing pieces, aren't they?
Absolutely! And they were a big discovery for me. I remember having dinner with Sir Simon Rattle in Toronto, and though it was not the first time I heard the name George Walker, Simon is such an advocate and told me: "Gianandrea, because you are in Washington, and he's from the city, you should just have a serious look at his music." I immediately asked the orchestra's librarian not only to show me George Walker but also William Grant Still and Florence Price, just to see music written by African American composers. For the first concert of this subscription season, I did Florence Price Symphony No 3, and when the opportunity came to do the Beethoven cycle in concert with American Masters – that is, Walker and Grant Still – I was so happy to embark on this project, and of course also to record the Walker.
Since Walker was based in Washington, and the fourth was premiered there, presumably some members of the orchestra were familiar with his works already?
Whether it was familiar to them is difficult to say, because it's not the kind of music that stays; it's very complex. But some members remember having played in either 2013 or 2014, and recognised their pencil markings in the parts. But now, with the recording as well, it was a fantastic process just to spend time absorbing the material. And what I consider important for any composer of symphonies is they have to be able to give clear gestures. It's not music inspired by something external – like tone poems or incidental music – so the musical gestures, the architectural part of the music should be so clear, and George Walker is really a master in that.
And that's especially important in the Sinfonias, which are not long pieces…
They're very compact, and if we talk about Sinfonia No. 4, it's very dramatic and there's a lot of tension. There are moments of basso ostinato, probably coming from the heritage of the blues, of course revisited and reorchestrated. There are some rhythmical patterns that remind me of The Rite of Spring, but there is also a moment, very short, probably 45 seconds, where there is a cello solo and everything comes a little bit more transparent, more clean. At other moments there is really a sort of concentration of complexity, but the rhythmical writing is always very precise. It takes time to rehearse, but when the orchestra gets it the audience responds in a very engaged, enthusiastic way – as was the case when we played it live in Washington D.C.
You programmed the works in concert alongside Beethoven's symphonies. Is it fair to say there are both advantages and disadvantages in performing music people are not likely to know alongside such popular works?
Yes, and of course, let's say, most people came for the Beethoven cycle. But when you present Beethoven alongside music by others, when you put a sinfonia by George Walker alongside a symphony by Beethoven, the fantastic effect is that Beethoven sounds differently to your ears; one music illuminates the other. It's incredible how it means you no longer take it for granted: there's something that makes you more sensitive in accepting something that you already know, or you assume you know – even for performers.
And it also makes a big statement to perform – and record – all the sinfonias as a cycle…
Absolutely, and I found the orchestra incredibly motivated. George Walker was very well respected: he was of course the first African-American winner of the Pulitzer prize, but he was also a very gifted pianist, a recitalist playing the big repertoire in an incredible way – so he was always recognised as a very important Washingtonian figure. But when you put the spotlight just on his skills as a composer, it's incredible. What impresses me when I approach any kind of music is when I see the composer has a real composing hand, that through the notes you can understand – or can try to understand – what is in the mind of the composer. And in George Walker it can be difficult, it can be complex, but it's clear what he wanted, you get where the goal is that you're aiming towards.
Are you planning also to perform some of this historically underperformed music – by Walker as well as others – in Europe?
Absolutely! I'm principal guest conductor with the LSO, where we are planning in the next season to do some music by Florence Price and George Walker, because when you really believe in the quality, you try also to export it and present it to other people. I presented the Symphony No. 4 by William Grant Still in a concert I did Turin with the orchestra of the Teatro Regio, and it was incredible how the audience reacted. It's an important process to let people hear this music more not only in America but all over the world.
George Walker: Sinfonia No. 4 is out on IDAGIO now. Further releases in the series follow throughout the year.