Only in recent years has the orchestra begun to perform works by musicians of color with any frequency. Sunday’s program under Andris Nelsons included two compositions by Black composers William Grant Still (1895-1974) and George Walker (1922-2018) whom the orchestra had performed decades ago. The second half of the concert brought an especially satisfying hearing of one of those “dead white composers” who have been the meat and potatoes of symphonic cuisine: Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in the hands of the splendid and poetic young Seong-Jin Choin at his Tanglewood debut (he had appeared at Symphony Hall in March 2020).
Still composed In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy during World War II to one of a series of commissions by the League of Composers in New York for patriotic orchestral works to be presented by the New York Philharmonic, then transmitted widely to the troops and civilians as widely as possible. The Boston Symphony gave it in January 1945 under guest conductor George Szell; Seiji Ozawa directed it as part of the 1995-96 season that included many works composed during the war, on the 50th anniversary of its conclusion. Still’s a short tone-poem employs sonorities suggesting military funerals (fanfares, drumrolls, bells tolling—all muted) along with poignant melodies suggesting the spirit of Black spirituals to make the point of the specific soldiers being commemorated—an ironic point, because the American soldiers were fighting to free victims of tyranny while they themselves were less than truly free at home. The work’s pathos still makes its mark 80 years after its creation.
Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for Lilacs, A BSO commission which the orchestra premiered in 1996. The text consists of four passages from Walt Whitman’s lamentation of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed, a poem that highlights the contrast between the national mourning over the death in mid-April 1865 with the fresh brightness of the blossoming lilacs. Two previous composers, Paul Hindemith and Roger Sessions, had set the poem in full-length versions lasting about an hour. Walker’s score is considerably more “modern” than Still’s, but it is shaped with melodic images that suggest lamenting contrasted with floral “blooms” in both the instrumental parts and the voice line. Soprano Latonia Moore soared richly in the blooming lines, though when the voice went very low in pitch, it tended to be covered by the orchestra, likely due to the unwalled expansiveness of the Tanglewood Shed. Nevertheless, this second BSO performance of Lilacs gave real satisfaction.
The poetic performance of the young Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho in Brahms’s massive but lyrical Second Piano Concerto made a wonderful effect. Not yet 30, he won first prize at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw at the age of 21. Here he displayed a marvelous control of legao from the very opening arpeggios that rise from low in the piano over more than five octaves, each one ending in bell-like tones that linger quietly. The sweet gentleness of the opening became dramatically assertive when his cadenza takes on the entire orchestra. Despite the size of the concerto and its weighty feeling, Cho’s fleet contrasts retained a sweetness even as he dominated at the fullest moments. The BSO backed him up elegantly, especially with major solos providing contrasting color and character to the piano: James Somerville’s horn, John Ferillo’s oboe, and Blaise Déjardin’s cello. The driving “little scherzo” that Brahms put in second place led to the sweet ache of the Andante. A rather lively movement—but not too much—pushes the finale to its almost-understated conclusion.
After tumultuous applause, Seong-Jin Cho obliged with an encore contrasting thoroughly with the giant Brahms score: a relaxed Sarabande from Handel’s Fourth Suite.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.