George Walker’s centennial celebrated at BU x Castle of Our Skins Residency Recital

Photo Credit: Ramsey Khalifeh / BUNS

By Ramsey Khalifeh
Boston University News Service 

A Steinway & Sons grand piano. Violists, violinists, and cellists. Instruments that sounded like operas. A dedicated sheet music page-turner. A passionate son, tap-dancing as he played his music with an accompanied pianist. Five of the performed sonatas were composed by George Walker and his son Gregory. 

On Friday, Oct. 7, Boston University’s School of Music hosted the Castle of Our Skins residency recital. It featured the sonata work of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Walker, whose centennial is being celebrated this year. The pieces were performed by his son Gregory Walker, and instrumentalists Daniel Doña, Ketty Netz, Emmanuel Feldman, and Joy Cline Phinney. 

“My father had a profound sense of self-belief and a sense of righteous indignation that his music wasn’t being acknowledged and performed,” Walker said, in a phone interview, when speaking on his father’s early struggles for recognition. “He was already convinced that it was great … and that motivated him.”

George Walker passed away in 2018. In 1996, he was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his work in voice and orchestra titled Lilacs which was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

During the performance, Walker said he wished his father could’ve been there to celebrate his centennial, but sharing his father’s music to an audience in Boston where he won his Pulitzer was “the next best thing.”

Castle of Our Skins, the organization that assembled Friday’s show, is an initiative that works to foster cultural curiosity and highlight Black musicians, according to the co-founder, Ashleigh Gordon. The group looks to the music world to focus on issues and find ways to discuss them through different mediums including workshops, performances, and classes.

For this initiative, according to the second co-founder Anthony R. Green, the issue the group wanted to focus on was giving Mr. Walker his posthumous recognition of 100 years. No other organization in the country presented a program to mark Walker’s centennial.

“In 2020, organization after organization pressed upon Beethoven’s 250th anniversary celebration. [On] the same year another Black composer, William Grant Still, turned 175 and there was practically no attention given,” Green said. This issue, according to Green, is the same for Walker’s legacy this year in 2022. 

“Gregory had been brought in through the composition department to be engaged in a residency … and the Walker connection and music connection and artistry seemed too good to be true,” Gordon said.

For Green, the most important goal for Castle of Our Skins is not to dwell, but rather give recognition to artists.

“I want to stress first and foremost that our organization is focused on celebration,” Green said. “We’re in the business of celebrating the accomplishments of these artists in spite of the issues.”

Friday night’s program included five different sonatas, four of which were composed by Mr. Walker and one by his son. A sonata can have varying forms, but typically it is a composition of music that is made for one or more instruments. In classical music, this can involve a piano and an accompanying instrument.

The range of string sonatas that were performed and composed by Mr. Walker was experimental and emphasized Mr. Walker’s goal to make music that sounded like nothing else his contemporaries were producing at the time.

The violin, viola, and cello performances were each unique. There were emotional highs, where performers were visibly connected and touched intimately by the music, and interesting lows that featured slow ballads. 

When Walker was introduced, performing the last three sonatas of the show on violin, he looked to the audience, smiling, and made a joke as the pianist was adjusting their seat to get ready.

“Whenever the composer’s son is in the house, things need to be just right,” Walker said, which preceded laughter from the audience.

When the pianist began, Walker tapped his feet, moved his body across the stage, and played his father’s sonatas by heart, with his eyes closed. 

The last piece of the night was George Walker’s first violin sonata. His son was emotional as he introduced it, especially since the violin was his main instrument and the piece connected him to his father greatly. 

“That didn’t stop him from encouraging me to pursue violin,” Walker said previously in an interview, referring to his father’s frustrations with the music world throughout his life. “For me, there was no other choice but to go into music.”

The show concluded with a brief panel discussion moderated by Green on George Walker’s legacy.

“I thought [the show] was absolutely spectacular,” Daniel Pooley said, a classical musician in attendance at Friday’s event. “I think George Walker is a composer of immense caliber … [and] it’s a real privilege to be in the room listening to his music.”

Walker noted how grateful he was to perform in Boston and to play his father’s work. He said the music his father composed has endured great lengths of time.

“My strong opinion, biased as it may be, is that he’s one of the greatest composers of the past 100 years,” Walker said. “He really believed he had something to offer the world.”

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