CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Pianist Rochelle Sennet and Sinfonia da Camera will perform a work by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Walker that has not been played live in concert since the 1970s. Sennet and Sinfonia conductor Ian Hobson chose Walker’s “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Walker’s birth.
The Walker piece will be part of the concert “Sinfonia da Camera: Romantic Masterpieces” at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m. The concert also will include performances of works by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Antonín Dvořák.
Sennet – a professor of piano in the School of Music at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion for the College of Fine and Applied Arts – said Walker has been very influential in her career. A composer, pianist and organist, Walker was the first Black recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for music, in 1996. Sennet said she first discovered “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” as an undergraduate student.
“He was the first Black composer whose music I came across. It was like nothing I ever heard. It defied all expectations in terms of tonality, dissonances, contrast between sensitive moments and highly energetic moments,” Sennet said. “I’m honored to be able to present this work live. It’s long overdue. His music and the honesty of his approach really speak to me.”
She interviewed Walker, who died in 2018, while writing about his work for her doctoral dissertation. He also spoke with her about every aspect of the piano concerto, which hadn’t been recorded since the 1970s, before Sennet went to Poland in 2010 to record the composition with Sinfonia Varsovia, conducted by Hobson.
“It’s technically quite demanding, both the orchestral and the piano parts. It’s very well thought-out. There’s melody and harmony, but it’s not Bach or Mozart. It’s not Chopin,” she said.
Hobson – the music director and conductor of Sinfonia da Camera, a pianist and a professor emeritus of piano – has recorded six volumes of Walker’s music, including the piano concerto with Sennet. He said Walker asked him to record his major works for orchestra after listening to Hobson’s other recordings of symphonic performances.
“He had had his works performed by the New York Philharmonic, the Atlanta Symphony and others, but he entrusted me with his orchestral legacy on CD,” Hobson said.
“George’s music is made up of small motifs, similar to Beethoven, which he works in great detail. The intellectual power of the music is evident everywhere. He is uncompromising yet also very human in his response to harmony and atmosphere,” he said.
Sennet performed another Walker piece, “Guido’s Hand: Five Pieces for Piano,” on her most recent recording, “Bach to Black: Suites for Piano: Volume II.” The three-disc set was released in October by Albany Records.
It is the second in a series of three recordings that pairs J.S. Bach’s keyboard suites with compositions from Black composers. With her “Bach to Black” project, Sennet said she wants to broaden the audience for the music of both Bach and Black composers, challenge expectations about music written by Black composers, and encourage conversations about inclusion and diversity in classical music.
Walker’s influence “is ultimately what started the journey of what became ‘Bach to Black.’ That’s where those early seeds were planted. It got me thinking that I want to learn more about Black composers,” Sennet said.
The most recent set of recordings includes Bach’s Partitas, as well as six suites by Black composers, three of whom are women: Montague Ring – a pseudonym for Amanda Aldridge, Florence Beatrice Price and Joyce Solomon Moorman. Sennet said she wanted to honor the contributions of Black women to classical music, many of which are unrecognized.
The Walker pieces she played on the new recording and that she’ll perform with Sinfonia da Camera were written for Black women. Sennet said Walker wrote the “Guido’s Hand” pieces for his sister, and the “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” was written for Natalie Hinderas, a Black concert pianist.