Beethoven pairs up with Black composers in Washington DC

Beethoven pairs up with Black composers in Washington DC


norman lebrecht

May 25, 2021

From Gianandrea Noseda’s new season:

In January 2022, Noseda conducts a three-week festival of music by American composers George Walker (pic) and William Grant Still paired with Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 1, 4, 5, and 9, in a nod to the 250th Anniversary of the composer’s birth. These programs will be recorded for release on the NSO’s new recording label. In addition, former Kennedy Center Education Artist-in-Residence Mo Willems will exhibit a series of large-scale abstractions in the Center’s Hall of Nations inspired by the music and genius of Beethoven.


  • mary says:

    The laziest way to present new or underplayed music is to pair them with Beethoven symphonies, orchestras the world over have done that with women composers, modern composers, new commissions, neglected national composers, local composers, Asian composers, latino composers, black composers, jazz works…

    It’s lazy because you’re just reprogramming Beethoven yet another season, meanwhile the parade of paired works will never be played again.

    • Save the MET says:

      Mary, If you want to sell tickets, Still and Walker will not fill the house. That said, if you pair a composer like Beethoven with their works, people will fill the house, hear the Beethoven they want to hear and hopefully surprise themselves when they hear Still and Walkers’ music and like it. Adventuresome programming alone works for the few, not the many. Levine used to use this to great effect with his MET Orchestra concerts at Carnegie Hall, where he would program a seldom heard piece of Anton Webern etc. and then have a major artist play a concerto by a brand named composer, but he would hold the work they wanted to hear until the end of the concert, so they heard the work that likely did not interest them in the hope of broadening their horizons. It’s called programming psychology.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Before WW II premieres of any kind, also of pieces by unknown composers, were normal, and regular. Audiences were curious for the new works. Premieres were normal and never a reason to avoid the concert, except for the name of Schoenberg who was more talked about than played, and had the reputation of ‘ugly’ and ‘terrible’.

        Only after WW II with the introduction of modernist atonal avantgarde works, ‘new music’ or ‘unknown music’ became a read flag and had to be dealt with differently. How come? This problem began with Schoenberg.

        • Marfisa says:

          I’m not so sure the audiences were any less resistant to new music then than now. I was reading about Carl Schuricht recently. In 1920 he was appointed musical director in Wiesbaden, where he promoted modern music (Richard Strauss, Reger, Mahler, Delius and Arnold Schoenberg)/
          “Schuricht said of this time, ‘The German public was no more avid than any other for the novelties I wanted to give it. I have to prepare it for them gently, convince without bludgeoning, cajole and seduce. I managed this by prefacing concerts of modern music by lectures, which I illustrated with extracts played by myself at the piano or by the orchestra.'” (Wikipedia)

        • Save the MET says:

          Modernism started well before post World War II. Lots of experimental composers between the late 1890’s and 1945. Richard Strauss’s “Salome” banned after one performance at the Metropolitan Opera, Ernestine Schumann-Heink the first Klytemnestra told Strauss, “Dies ist das Ende der Musik” after the premiere of “Elektra”. Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” caused riots at its’ 1913 premiere. At the same time Schoenberg was writing modern, but lyrical pieces like Gurre-Lieder which by the way was influenced by Wagner. For good measure, how about Krenek’s “Jonny Spielt Auf”? Initially reviled, it became a modernist hit, utilizing a black theme and shhhh Jazz! Schreker was creating newfangled original music well before World War II and teaching it to his disciples. The Nazi’s erased him and he died in 1934, so today, he does not get the creit he deserves. Meanwhile, I did not even mention Debussy, or Ravel who were changing the face of French music at this time. The new atonal and modernist music has always been a mixed bag. It is important to bring it out, new music as well, but if you have to fill a large hall in most major cities throughout the world, you need a catch to bring in the audience. I was thinking about a concert I attended and even mentioned in a Goerne article a few weeks ago. The NY Philharmonic played a program, Ives’ “Central Park In the Dark”, Adams’ “The Wound Dresser”, but the draw for most was to hear Brahms 1st. While the first two brought in some people, the house was filled because of the Brahms and the patrons got to hear the other two pieces, they might never have heard otherwise. Frankly, a successful evening.

    • Donna Pasquale says:

      I wonder if Mary has her outfit close by when she writes?

  • MacroV says:

    It’s nice they’re going beyond Walker’s “Lyric for Strings” and Still’s “Afro-American Symphony” but it’s still just three works – two by Walker, one by Still – sandwiched by Beethoven. This seems like creative juxtaposition than trying to make the unfamiliar Walker and Still palatable to the hidebound DC audience. I’d rather have had one program with the three pieces, though that probably wouldn’t sell.

  • MacroV says:

    Actually looks like a pretty good season overall, but there’s gonna be a lot of disappointed customers with this one when they discover there’s no Hallelujah Chorus (maybe they’ll do it as an encore):

    Gianandrea Noseda, conductor

    Johann Sebastian Bach: Magnificat
    George Frideric Handel: Messiah – Part I “Christmas”

  • No Woke Programming, Please says:

    William what? George who?
    Not interested at all, but I’ll come for the Beethoven – maybe. Just more woke nonsense out of DC.

    • George says:

      George Walker is a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and local to DC. Not “woke” to program his music and rightly justified to include it next to a work in the traditional canon.

    • Marfisa says:

      Satirically meant, I hope.

    • Fan says:

      I don’t think Beethoven or Walker would ever care if you are there or not.

    • Stuart says:

      Silly to call it woke programming – it’s the role of an orchestra to explore works that it hasn’t played before – how else will we all learn and expand our musical horizons? I love Beethoven’s music, but am constantly looking to hear new and different works. Unless you think of your orchestra as if it were a museum.

      • Saxon says:

        Personally I wish they would go through the repertoire which has been presented just once and try to re-present those pieces they believe are worth another listen. I really can’t understand the “play once and ignore for ever, (or 40 years if you are lucky)”.

  • Bostin'Symph says:

    George Walker was the featured composer in BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week last year.

  • Patrick says:

    Your headline should read, “George Walker pairs up with White Composer in Washington, D.C.”

    • John Borstlap says:

      There’re some doubts as to the whiteness of that other composer. Haydn called him ‘the moghul’.

  • Marfisa says:

    I was first amused and then infuriated by the NSO’s brochure. “Gianandrea Noseda conducts three glorious programmes of Beethoven symphonies paired with music by trailblazing American composers George Walker and William Grant Still”.

    Trailblazing? sounds exciting.

    But the descriptions of these three concerts say nothing at all about the symphonies of George Walker or William Grant Still (apart from making sure we know these two men are Black), while enthusiastically and unnecessarily plugging Beethoven. E.g.:

    “Famed for its iconic four-note opening, Beethoven’s Fifth Symhony is one of the most well-known and influential pieces of music. Imaginative, violent … colossal crowd-pleaser .. dramatic tension that builds to a passionate climax. The program also includes the First Sinfonia by George Walker, a Washington, D.C. native and the first Black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music”

    Similarly William Grant Still is “the first Black composer to have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra …”

    Trailblazing = first Black to … (fill in blank).

  • NN says:

    Whether composers are black or white, it seems to proof Arthur Honegger: “There is no doubt that the first requirement for a composer is to be dead.”

    • John Borstlap says:

      Amazingly, most composers obey that instruction, sooner or later. Sooner when they have read Honegger’s line, and later when they’re forced to understand music life’s conventions.