George Walker (1922-2018) [Composer Of The Week]

Episodes

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01Prodigy20200106

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of George Walker, in conversation with his son Gregory. Today, Walker looks set for a glittering career as a concert pianist.

When Rosa King Walker announced to her five-year-old son George that, like it or not, he was going to have piano lessons, she can scarcely have been aware that she was dispatching him on a lifelong journey in music. Like many middle-class African-American parents of her generation, she had probably just wanted to make sure that her son was au fait with an important aspect of the ‘dominant’ culture. But things quickly escalated beyond his mother’s original intentions. The boy took to the piano like a duck to water, and by his mid-teens he was off to pursue undergraduate music studies at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. After that came a period of post-graduate study at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute under the tutelage, among others, of the legendary Rudolf Serkin. Walker’s concerto début came at the age of 23, when he performed one of the most challenging works in the repertoire, Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, no less, under the great Eugene Ormandy. A stellar career on the concert platform surely beckoned, but in the event, things were not so straightforward. It took five years for Walker to find himself an agent, and when he finally did, he was told that it would be difficult getting bookings for a black classical pianist – a prediction which turned out, in the America of the 1950s, to be accurate. Walker had better luck in Europe, where he toured in 1953, but stress got the better of him and he developed a debilitating stomach ulcer. So gradually he began to turn his back on the idea of a solo career, gravitating instead towards a life in teaching – and, increasingly, composition.

Response (Laurence Dunbar)
Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano
George Walker, piano

String Quartet No 1 (1st mvt)
Son Sonora String Quartet

Lyric for Strings
London Symphony Orchestra
Paul Freeman, conductor

Piano Sonata No 1 (2nd and 3rd mvts)
George Walker, piano

Cello Sonata (2nd mvt)
Emmanuel Feldman, cello
Joy Cline-Phinney, piano

Trombone Concerto
Christian Lindberg, trombone
Malmö Symphony Orchestra
James DePriest, conductor

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales

The life and music of George Walker. Today, a glittering career as a concert pianist?

Donald Macleod offers a weekly guide to composers and their music.

02La Boulangerie20200107

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of George Walker, in conversation with his son Gregory. Today Walker’s Paris-bound, to study with the formidable Nadia Boulanger.

“Myth ?, the composer Ned Rorem once wrote in an article for the New York Times, “credits every American town with two things: a 10-cent store and a Boulanger student. ? He had a point. Since the founding of the American Conservatory at the Palace of Fontainebleau, an hour or so’s train journey south-east of Paris, in the aftermath of World War I, a period of study with 'Mademoiselle' had become a virtual rite of passage for aspiring young musicians from over the pond. In a career lasting nearly six decades, Nadia Boulanger taught more than 600 of them, encouraging the craft of composers as different in their outlooks as Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Philip Glass and Burt Bacharach. Armed with a recent doctorate from the Eastman School of Music and funded by a Fulbright Scholarship, George Walker made the pilgrimage to France in 1957, staying on for a second year courtesy of a John H Whitney Fellowship. Boulanger was, he recalled in later life, “the first person to acknowledge and praise my gift for musical composition. She never told me how to write. ? Nonetheless, Walker’s time with Boulanger exposed to him to the cutting edge of contemporary musical thought, and marks a watershed in the evolution of his compositional style. Inspired by an encounter with Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, Walker’s solo piano piece Spatials is an engaging if perhaps somewhat self-conscious adventure in strict serialism; but in his spiky Variations for Orchestra and the dynamic Piano Concerto, his new researches have been fully assimilated into his own musical persona.

The Bereaved Maid
Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano
George Walker, piano

Sonata No 1 for violin and piano
Gregory Walker, violin
George Walker, piano

Spatials
George Walker, piano

Variations for Orchestra
New Philharmonia Orchestra
Paul Freeman, conductor

Five Fancies for clarinet and piano four hands (Theme and 5 variations)
Eric Thomas, clarinet
Vivian Taylor, John McDonald, piano

Piano Concerto (2nd mvt)
Natalie Hinderas, piano
Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Paul Freeman, conductor

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales

The life and music of George Walker. Today, Walker is Paris-bound, to study composition.

Donald Macleod offers a weekly guide to composers and their music.

03Arrival20200108

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of George Walker, in conversation with his son Gregory. Today, commissions galore – including Walker’s first venture into symphonic form.

More than three decades after he composed his earliest acknowledged work, George Walker received his first proper commission – ‘proper’ in the sense that he was actually paid for it. He finally seemed to have arrived as a composer, and from here on in, the majority of his pieces would be commissioned. On the menu in today’s programme: a brass quintet, a cantata, a piano sonata and the first of the five works Walker termed ‘Sinfonia’, to distinguish them from the tradition of the Romantic symphony.

Music for Brass (Sacred and Profane)
American Brass Quintet

Cantata
Joyce Mathis, soprano
Walter Turnbull, tenor
Boys Choir of Harlem
Orchestra of St Luke’s
Warren Wilson, conductor

Piano Sonata No 4
Frederick Moyer, piano

Sinfonia No 1
Sinfonia Varsovia
Ian Hobson, conductor

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales

The life and music of George Walker. Today, Walker's first venture into symphonic form.

Donald Macleod offers a weekly guide to composers and their music.

04Lilac Time20200109

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of George Walker, in conversation with his son Gregory. Today, recognition at last, as Walker wins the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Music.

When Walker got the phone call informing him of his epic win, the shock rendered him monosyllabic; in his autobiography, Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist, he recalls saying “Wow! ? a lot. News soon got around – a Pulitzer was big news – and before long, there was a queue of journalists snaking down the driveway of the composer’s house in Montclair, New Jersey, eager to extract a few bon mots from the great man. A Pulitzer Prize is a career-defining moment, which makes what happened next in Walker’s career all the more surprising. “I got probably more publicity nationwide than perhaps any other Pulitzer Prize-winner, ? he recalled in 2015. “But not a single orchestra approached me about doing the piece or any piece. It materialized in nothing. ? The piece that won the prize was Lilacs, Walker’s setting of verses from Walt Whitman’s elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln, ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’. The Pulitzer Music Jury praised the “beautiful and evocative lyrical quality ? of “this passionate, and very American, musical composition ?.

Hey Nonny No (anon)
Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano
George Walker, piano

Poème for violin and orchestra
Gregory Walker, violin
Cleveland Chamber Symphony
Edwin London, conductor

In Time of Silver Rain
Mother Goose (Circa 2054)
Patricia Green, mezzo-soprano
George Walker, piano

Lilacs
Albert Lee, tenor
Sinfonia da Camera
Ian Hobson, conductor

Modus
Cygnus Ensemble

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales

The life and music of George Walker. Today, he wins the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Donald Macleod offers a weekly guide to composers and their music.

05Visions20200110

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of George Walker, in conversation with his son Gregory. Today, the tragedy of the Charleston church massacre inspires Walker’s last work.

George Walker had a tendency to play things close to his chest, even where his loved ones were concerned. Gregory Walker relates how the first time he became aware that his father had been working on a new violin concerto was when it turned up in the post one morning. Not only that, he was to give the première the following month – not with some local band, but with one of the world’s great orchestras, the Philadelphia! Gregory Walker talks movingly about his father's tearful reaction to the work’s first play-through; his character, by turns formal, affectionate, passionate, emotional, often angry; and about the experience of seeing him grapple with his swansong, the Sinfonia No 5, subtitled ‘Visions’, which he embarked on at the age of 93: “It was unforgettable to see someone who’d been a child prodigy, someone who had prided himself on keeping track of the most complex compositional concepts and trying to push himself beyond those complexities with each succeeding piece, reach a point where he was realising he could hardly do it anymore. ?

Icarus in Orbit
Sinfonia da Camera
Ian Hobson, conductor

Piano Sonata No 5
Robert Pollock, piano

Da Camera, for piano trio, harp, celesta, string orchestra and percussion
Rochelle Sennet, piano
Sherban Lupu, violin
Brandon Vamos, cello
Sinfonia da Camera
Ian Hobson, conductor

Violin Concerto (2nd mvt)
Gregory Walker, violin
Ian Hobson, conductor
Sinfonia Varsovia

Bleu
Gregory Walker, violin

Sinfonia No 5 (‘Visions’)
Sinfonia Varsovia
Ian Hobson, conductor

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales

The life and music of George Walker. Today, tragedy inspires Walker's last work.

Donald Macleod offers a weekly guide to composers and their music.

202001Prodigy20200106

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of George Walker, in conversation with his son Gregory. Today, Walker looks set for a glittering career as a concert pianist.

When Rosa King Walker announced to her five-year-old son George that, like it or not, he was going to have piano lessons, she can scarcely have been aware that she was dispatching him on a lifelong journey in music. Like many middle-class African-American parents of her generation, she had probably just wanted to make sure that her son was au fait with an important aspect of the ‘dominant’ culture. But things quickly escalated beyond his mother’s original intentions. The boy took to the piano like a duck to water, and by his mid-teens he was off to pursue undergraduate music studies at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. After that came a period of post-graduate study at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute under the tutelage, among others, of the legendary Rudolf Serkin. Walker’s concerto début came at the age of 23, when he performed one of the most challenging works in the repertoire, Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, no less, under the great Eugene Ormandy. A stellar career on the concert platform surely beckoned, but in the event, things were not so straightforward. It took five years for Walker to find himself an agent, and when he finally did, he was told that it would be difficult getting bookings for a black classical pianist – a prediction which turned out, in the America of the 1950s, to be accurate. Walker had better luck in Europe, where he toured in 1953, but stress got the better of him and he developed a debilitating stomach ulcer. So gradually he began to turn his back on the idea of a solo career, gravitating instead towards a life in teaching – and, increasingly, composition.

Response (Laurence Dunbar)
Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano
George Walker, piano

String Quartet No 1 (1st mvt)
Son Sonora String Quartet

Lyric for Strings
London Symphony Orchestra
Paul Freeman, conductor

Piano Sonata No 1 (2nd and 3rd mvts)
George Walker, piano

Cello Sonata (2nd mvt)
Emmanuel Feldman, cello
Joy Cline-Phinney, piano

Trombone Concerto
Christian Lindberg, trombone
Malmö Symphony Orchestra
James DePriest, conductor

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales

The life and music of George Walker. Today, a glittering career as a concert pianist?

Donald Macleod offers a weekly guide to composers and their music.

202002La Boulangerie20200107

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of George Walker, in conversation with his son Gregory. Today Walker’s Paris-bound, to study with the formidable Nadia Boulanger.

“Myth”, the composer Ned Rorem once wrote in an article for the New York Times, “credits every American town with two things: a 10-cent store and a Boulanger student.” He had a point. Since the founding of the American Conservatory at the Palace of Fontainebleau, an hour or so’s train journey south-east of Paris, in the aftermath of World War I, a period of study with 'Mademoiselle' had become a virtual rite of passage for aspiring young musicians from over the pond. In a career lasting nearly six decades, Nadia Boulanger taught more than 600 of them, encouraging the craft of composers as different in their outlooks as Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Philip Glass and Burt Bacharach. Armed with a recent doctorate from the Eastman School of Music and funded by a Fulbright Scholarship, George Walker made the pilgrimage to France in 1957, staying on for a second year courtesy of a John H Whitney Fellowship. Boulanger was, he recalled in later life, “the first person to acknowledge and praise my gift for musical composition. She never told me how to write.” Nonetheless, Walker’s time with Boulanger exposed to him to the cutting edge of contemporary musical thought, and marks a watershed in the evolution of his compositional style. Inspired by an encounter with Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, Walker’s solo piano piece Spatials is an engaging if perhaps somewhat self-conscious adventure in strict serialism; but in his spiky Variations for Orchestra and the dynamic Piano Concerto, his new researches have been fully assimilated into his own musical persona.

The Bereaved Maid
Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano
George Walker, piano

Sonata No 1 for violin and piano
Gregory Walker, violin
George Walker, piano

Spatials
George Walker, piano

Variations for Orchestra
New Philharmonia Orchestra
Paul Freeman, conductor

Five Fancies for clarinet and piano four hands (Theme and 5 variations)
Eric Thomas, clarinet
Vivian Taylor, John McDonald, piano

Piano Concerto (2nd mvt)
Natalie Hinderas, piano
Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Paul Freeman, conductor

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales

The life and music of George Walker. Today, Walker is Paris-bound, to study composition.

Donald Macleod offers a weekly guide to composers and their music.

202003Arrival20200108

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of George Walker, in conversation with his son Gregory. Today, commissions galore – including Walker’s first venture into symphonic form.

More than three decades after he composed his earliest acknowledged work, George Walker received his first proper commission – ‘proper’ in the sense that he was actually paid for it. He finally seemed to have arrived as a composer, and from here on in, the majority of his pieces would be commissioned. On the menu in today’s programme: a brass quintet, a cantata, a piano sonata and the first of the five works Walker termed ‘Sinfonia’, to distinguish them from the tradition of the Romantic symphony.

Music for Brass (Sacred and Profane)
American Brass Quintet

Cantata
Joyce Mathis, soprano
Walter Turnbull, tenor
Boys Choir of Harlem
Orchestra of St Luke’s
Warren Wilson, conductor

Piano Sonata No 4
Frederick Moyer, piano

Sinfonia No 1
Sinfonia Varsovia
Ian Hobson, conductor

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales

The life and music of George Walker. Today, Walker's first venture into symphonic form.

Donald Macleod offers a weekly guide to composers and their music.

202004Lilac Time20200109

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of George Walker, in conversation with his son Gregory. Today, recognition at last, as Walker wins the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Music.

When Walker got the phone call informing him of his epic win, the shock rendered him monosyllabic; in his autobiography, Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist, he recalls saying “Wow!” a lot. News soon got around – a Pulitzer was big news – and before long, there was a queue of journalists snaking down the driveway of the composer’s house in Montclair, New Jersey, eager to extract a few bon mots from the great man. A Pulitzer Prize is a career-defining moment, which makes what happened next in Walker’s career all the more surprising. “I got probably more publicity nationwide than perhaps any other Pulitzer Prize-winner,” he recalled in 2015. “But not a single orchestra approached me about doing the piece or any piece. It materialized in nothing.” The piece that won the prize was Lilacs, Walker’s setting of verses from Walt Whitman’s elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln, ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’. The Pulitzer Music Jury praised the “beautiful and evocative lyrical quality” of “this passionate, and very American, musical composition”.

Hey Nonny No (anon)
Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano
George Walker, piano

Poème for violin and orchestra
Gregory Walker, violin
Cleveland Chamber Symphony
Edwin London, conductor

In Time of Silver Rain
Mother Goose (Circa 2054)
Patricia Green, mezzo-soprano
George Walker, piano

Lilacs
Albert Lee, tenor
Sinfonia da Camera
Ian Hobson, conductor

Modus
Cygnus Ensemble

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales

The life and music of George Walker. Today, he wins the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Donald Macleod offers a weekly guide to composers and their music.

202005 LASTVisions20200110

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of George Walker, in conversation with his son Gregory. Today, the tragedy of the Charleston church massacre inspires Walker’s last work.

George Walker had a tendency to play things close to his chest, even where his loved ones were concerned. Gregory Walker relates how the first time he became aware that his father had been working on a new violin concerto was when it turned up in the post one morning. Not only that, he was to give the première the following month – not with some local band, but with one of the world’s great orchestras, the Philadelphia! Gregory Walker talks movingly about his father's tearful reaction to the work’s first play-through; his character, by turns formal, affectionate, passionate, emotional, often angry; and about the experience of seeing him grapple with his swansong, the Sinfonia No 5, subtitled ‘Visions’, which he embarked on at the age of 93: “It was unforgettable to see someone who’d been a child prodigy, someone who had prided himself on keeping track of the most complex compositional concepts and trying to push himself beyond those complexities with each succeeding piece, reach a point where he was realising he could hardly do it anymore.”

Icarus in Orbit
Sinfonia da Camera
Ian Hobson, conductor

Piano Sonata No 5
Robert Pollock, piano

Da Camera, for piano trio, harp, celesta, string orchestra and percussion
Rochelle Sennet, piano
Sherban Lupu, violin
Brandon Vamos, cello
Sinfonia da Camera
Ian Hobson, conductor

Violin Concerto (2nd mvt)
Gregory Walker, violin
Ian Hobson, conductor
Sinfonia Varsovia

Bleu
Gregory Walker, violin

Sinfonia No 5 (‘Visions’)
Sinfonia Varsovia
Ian Hobson, conductor

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales

The life and music of George Walker. Today, tragedy inspires Walker's last work.

Donald Macleod offers a weekly guide to composers and their music.