Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and George Walker’s Lilacs Verizon Hall

Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and George Walker’s Lilacs - It was Igor Stravinsky who launched music’s neoclassical movement, and according to no less a figure than Leonard Bernstein, Oedipus Rex was the most “awesome product” of the Russian composer’s neoclassical years.

A Handelian opera-oratorio for orchestra, narrator, soloists, and male chorus, its Latin libretto was translated from Jean Cocteau’s French interpretation of Sophocles’s archetypal Greek tragedy. Despite its Classical inspiration, however, there is a continuity between the dramatic grandeur of the work and Stravinsky’s later religious ones. And although Oedipus Rex is seldom performed, its drama, wit, and consummate artistry does full justice to the composer’s formidable legacy.

Jack Mulroney Music Director Corrado Rovaris leads the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra and Chorus in two dramatic concert performances of Stravinsky’s masterwork on the Verizon Hall stage. Joining them as soloists are tenor William Burden, bringing his “emotional intensity” and “elegant singing” (New York Times) to the title role; bass-baritone Mark S. Doss, lending his “resonant and well-shaded baritone” (OperaWire) to the role of Créon; and mezzo-soprano Rehanna Thelwell, whose “rich, deep and striking vocal presence” makes her “a singer to watch” (South Florida Classical Review), in her company debut as Jocasta.

Each concert opens with Lilacs by American composer George Walker (1922-2018). The 15-minute work, scored for soprano soloist and orchestra, is a setting of Walt Whitman’s poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” a poignant reflection on the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Premiered on February 1, 1996, in Boston, Lilacs was honored with that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music, making Walker the first Black composer to win the award. His trailblazing series of "firsts" included being the first Black graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, the first Black pianist to play a recital at New York's Town Hall, and the first Black instrumentalist to play solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Soprano Tiffany Townsend, who made her company debut as Princess Ninetta in Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges in Festival O19, returns as the soloist for Lilacs, bringing her “depth and tremendous vocal power” (Bachtrack) to the stage of Verizon Hall.

Mark Clague, who wrote the entry on Walker for the International Dictionary of Black Composers, points to elements of race and politics in Walker's compositions. “He constructs his music so that the unknowing listener should not be able to distinguish it from that of his ‘canonized’ white contemporaries,” Clague writes, citing influences from Stravinsky, Debussy, and the serialist school of composers. “He frequently draws on black musical idioms, such as spirituals, blues patterns, and jazz tropes. Walker’s music, however, is not a collage of modern styles, or a pastiche, but has its own distinct voice.”

Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and George Walker’s Lilacs
January 21 & 23, 2022
Verizon Hall

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