What’s Playing at the Kennedy

June 5th, 2023 4:15 PM

WASHINGTON -- Last week in this space I wrote about culture and how essential it is to the politics of a nation. If the culture of a country is upbeat, the country will be fine. If the culture of a country is in decline, its politics will follow. Simply put, culture prefigures politics. Russia -- once referred to as the Soviet Union -- is an example of what I have in mind. Imagine mighty Russia struggling with heroic, though much smaller, Ukraine. Closer to home, if the culture of a country is infantile, the political issues that the country immerses itself in will be infantile. America now spends an inordinate amount of time administering to the public bathroom needs -- or claimed needs -- of people who insist they are something other than what their biological manifestations claim they are. The whims of congenital malcontents trump biology.

This past week, I took in a cultural event, as I am wont to do from time to time. I went to the Kennedy Center to take in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 as well as his Egmont Overture and his Coriolan Overture. As usual, Beethoven never lets me down. The music swept me away. I have been listening to his music for years. I never tire of it. I believe Beethoven could blow his nose, and it would be worth listening to.

There was another composer on the program. A gentleman by the name of George Walker, who is an American of color as we now say. He composed the bulk of his work in the last century, and, though a gentleman of color, he eschewed the term “Black composer.” He is called a “mature stylist” by the author of the evening’s program notes, who declared that Walker’s music “is firmly rooted in European modernism.” Modernism? That is about all you need to know to explain the crashing, banging and otherwise monotonous noises that I heard at the Kennedy Center the other night. The piece is called Sinfonia No. 2. While I could leave the Kennedy Center whistling old Ludwig’s Symphony No. 2, to say nothing of his overtures, there was nothing in Walker’s Sinfonia No. 2 to whistle. Not even a vagrant tune to blow one’s nose to.

I think Walker’s snooty way of treating “Black composers” was the beginning of his problems, and the rest of his problems came from his music being “firmly rooted in European modernism.” Why could it not be firmly rooted in Black Jazz or gospel music or rock ‘n’ roll? There is a wealth of tuneful music to be found in the work of American Blacks working in various genres. After all, did not Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” profit from lifting tunes from African American slaves and other American sources? Walker’s Sinfonia No. 2 could have benefited from a such larceny.

The other night at the Kennedy Center I had to sit through what seemed like hours of clangs and bangs and squeaks. Yes, squeaks! I have recently acquired a 4-month-old puppy. She is now being trained by a gifted dog trainer who emits sounds very similar to those emitted by the orchestra laboring to finish Walker’s horrible contribution to “European modernism.” The dog trainer’s eruptions are supposed to wake the puppy up. As I say, the other night I heard clangs and bangs and squeaks. There was thunder from the timpani and screeches from the violins, and the brass section made a horrible racket. At the piece’s denouement, I believe a chicken was heaved unto the stage. No, I think I am mistaken. I think the conductor lost control of his handkerchief. At any rate, it was a night to remember with or without the chicken.

Surely Walker could find some Black composer whose music he could appropriate to liven up his tuneless Sinfonia No.2. How about Duke Ellington? How about Count Basie? I think a stanza or two of Scott Joplin would be welcome. Or if Walker wanted to stick with the highbrow material, why not Florence Price? Or if Price is too much for him, why not Chuck Berry? But as I implied last week, our culture is sick.

Glory to Ukraine!