Classical composer and concert pianist George T. Walker Jr., 87, insists he does “not like … the term ‘inspiration.’” A man who earns his living by creative means threatens the muses with a remark like that, but Walker is as much a master of his words as he is of his music. His canon of works reveals a gradual evolution, a series of calculated mutations that advance it methodically forward.
It was Musica Reginae — a society of musicians founded to bring classical music to Queens — that commissioned the latest work in Walker’s canon, Da Camera for piano trio, string orchestra, harp, celesta, and percussion. Slated to premiere at Carnegie Hall with the New Haven Symphony one year ago, Da Camera finally makes its debut with the Queens Symphony Orchestra at the Queensborough Performing Arts Center in Bayside on Saturday, Feb. 20.
In an interview last Friday, Walker explained that he had composed Da Camera the “old-fashioned way, with pencil and paper. Of course, it’s not that old-fashioned because I could be using ink.” What began as several parts on one piano score were apportioned to their respective instruments and orchestras. Having discussed the possibility of a student ensemble playing alongside the professional QSO, Walker’s orchestration comprises an arrangement for a separate string section and quotations from recognizable spirituals, jazz and broadway tunes. Such references are, as he said “another way of defining [his atonal] work as being American.”
Walker defines himself as an American, not an African-American, composer. He was born in Washington, DC on June 27, 1922 to a West Indian immigrant physician and American homemaker. Graduating from Dunbar High School at 14, Walker was admitted to Oberlin College as a scholarship pianist in 1937, the youngest in his class. He left Oberlin with the highest honors in his conservatory class and went to the highly selective and tuition-free Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied piano with Rudolf Serkin, and composition with Rosario Scalero.In 1945, he was the Institute’s first black graduate.
The next year, Walker composed his String Quartet No. 1, the second movement of which, Lyric for Strings, is today the most frequently performed orchestral work by a living American composer. In 1955, he completed his doctorate and was awarded an artist diploma in piano at the Eastman School of Music. He studied composition for two years in Paris with renowned teacher Nadia Boulanger, who “did her best to make things possible for me” and reassured him immediately, “’You are a composer.’”
Walker has taught at such institutions as Smith College and the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, and has had over 90 compositions published and many recorded, but he is perhaps best known as the first black composer to receive the coveted Pulitzer Prize in music for his work, Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra, premiered by the Boston Symphony in 1996.
However, since then, no other orchestras have expressed interest in performing the piece. While there is continuity in Walker’s achievement as an artist, there is none in eliminating the “racial problem where one has success and one cannot continue to duplicate or expand on that success … Just recently when I suggested another work for the Philadelphia Orchestra, they said ‘Well we have other composers to think about.’ Well please, come on … What it amounts to is tokenism.”
Walker said that a composer’s commissions “should be predicated on the quality of the work, not because he’s well-known or for other reasons.” He bemoaned the allure of novelty and the lack of substance in contemporary classical music.
“There’s a lot that represents stylistic differences, but at the same time there’s a very limited ability and willingness to choose things on the basis of what would be substantial as opposed to what is marketable at the moment,” he said.
With this in mind, the premiere of Da Camera will mark the start of the artist’s hiatus from composition. He spends his time at home in Montclair, NJ, practicing with fingers still agile enough to record his sixth CD of standard piano repertoire.
Musica Reginae will perform the world premiere of Walker’s Da Camera on Feb. 20 at the Queensborough Performing Arts Center at Queensborough Community College, located at 222-05 56th Ave., Bayside.