Broad national recognition may have come late to George Walker, but it did not arrive undeserved. The 74-year-old composer, creator of a distinguished and distinctive body of work, this year became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. Saturday evening “Lilacs,” the prize-winning piece, received its West Coast premiere, courtesy of the Carson-Dominguez Hills Symphony Orchestra and attended by the composer.
A virtuoso pianist as well as a composer, Walker studied at Oberlin College, the Curtis Institute of Music, the Eastman School of Music and privately with Nadia Boulanger. Although little known in Southern California, his music is often played on the East Coast and in England. “Lilacs” was commissioned by the Boston Symphony and had its first performances this past February; Saturday’s concert marked its second outing.
“Lilacs” is a setting of four stanzas from Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” In his comments before the performance, Walker acknowledged the shadow cast by the well-known works of Paul Hindemith and Roger Sessions using the same text. A worthy successor--though at eight minutes much more compact than those earlier pieces--"Lilacs” revels in developed orchestral imagery and a psychologically acute vocal line. Freely dissonant in harmony and fluid rather than obsessed in rhythm, it works from a fairly conventional modern rhetoric in the first two stanzas to poignant brooding and then a quietly glittering exultation.
Soprano Faye Robinson was the soloist Saturday at the University Theatre of Cal State Dominguez Hills, as she was in Boston. She negotiated the angular and often stratospheric dramatics of the piece with ringing authority and brought poised and pointed emotional strength to bear on its haunted reflections and restrained benediction.
Frances Steiner led the seemingly well-drilled and conscientious performance. Claude Debussy’s “Nuages” and “Fetes” proved a complementary match for the Gallic flavor of “Lilacs,” but her student-community orchestra played with its greatest confidence and energy in four movements from “The Planets” by Gustav Holst.