Violinist Gregory Walker is visiting this week to work with the Oberlin Orchestra as it prepares “Poeme for Violin and Orchestra,” a piece composed by his father, George Walker, OC ’41. Walker spoke to the Review about his career as a violinist and his relationship with his father.
Colin Roshak: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Gregory Walker: My name is Gregory Walker; I play the violin. I’m fortunate enough to be the son of composer George Walker, and as a result, I find myself in a position of having to be his ambassador on the stage from time to time, especially when he comes up with these phenomenal, complex, mind boggling works for violin or violin and orchestra.
CR: How did you start in music?
GW: Growing up in a household where Dad was constantly at work with his compositions and my mother, who is a contemporary music specialist and pianist, you have a certain kind of environment. But after being in the shadow of all of this, it was a little much. Fairly early on in my undergraduate career I decided to veer off even from what the rest of my family liked to listen to, and [I began to] look into music and technology. Eventually, I ended up at a bunch of different schools studying in California; I have a degree in computer music, this and that. I did my time exploring that in different kinds of ways, and now that I’m at a stage where I’ve got the old instrument in my hands again. Some of what I do is informed by that, just being very aware of tonal possibilities.
CR: What’s it like to be here, where your father went to school?
GW: Just a little while ago, I was walking around campus trying to imagine what it might have been like when he was here. Maestro [Raphael] Jiménez, [Director of the Oberlin Orchestras], mentioned that it was the class of ’41 when he graduated, but even if you do the math with that, if you think he’s 92 years old, you realize that he was going here as an undergraduate when he was fifteen. But even that aside, the beautiful old campus we have here with the funky old trees with swings hanging from them. These trees, even the biggest ones, have grown since then, so we’re talking about possibly even a previous reincarnation of the entire institution.
CR: What’s your relationship with your father as a composer?
GW: Well, there are some obvious differences, but there are some similarities that you might not anticipate. For example, even though I’m the violinist in the family, and he likes to write for violin from time to time, and what he writes tends to be fairly virtuosic, the understanding is that whatever idea he comes up with, I get it in the mail, and I pretty much have to suck it up. The understanding is that I’m not going to object — I’m just going to absorb whatever kind of complexity he sends my way, and for that reason I have zero influence on the man, which is just like playing the music of any other historical master, I guess. Differences, I think, include the aspect that, by now, he’s fairly aware of my own approach and style, and I don’t know if he caters to that, but maybe he’s resigned himself to [a] certain kind of individualism. I think that’s where he knows it’s going if it ends up in my hands.
CR: Can you tell us about the piece that you’re performing with the Oberlin Orchestra?
GW: Well that’s the thing: it’s different [from the Walker Violin Concerto]: it’s older, its an earlier piece that actually had a performance history before me, so when it was first composed in the early nineties, there was a search for a soloist, and they decided upon another violinist named Eugene Fodor. Now, Fodor was actually a pretty big name; he was the highest prizewinner at the Tchaikovsky Competition, but he had kind of a reputation as a guy who only liked doing the flashy stuff, who had no substance, and so this was actually a chance to rehabilitate his image. After that, Cho-Liang Lin, another reputable top player, played it around quite a bit, and so while I was learning it, I worked off of his recordings. Finally, when I got a crack at it, it was a defining moment in my burgeoning career, it was a huge opportunity, it was finally a chance to see if I could live up to [my father’s] expectations. So it’s got huge personal associations for me.
CR: Tell me about the structure of the piece.
GW: The funny thing is, it’s got the title “Poeme,” so you thinking to yourself, what’s the secret program behind all of this? But my understanding is that [with] just about all of my father’s pieces, you don’t really mess around with images or subtext. You are religiously committed to realizing the details in the score; you don’t think in terms of any other imagery. And [as for] why he chose the title “Poeme — ” I’m sure he was aware of another famous piece for violin and orchestra by [Ernest] Chausson by the same name, but it’s possible that, as he’s done before, he wanted to just dangle the possibility in front of the listener, which means, if you think it’s a poem, then maybe you’ll try to fill in the blanks in your mind.
CR: Do you enjoy collaborating and working with contemporary composers?
GW: That’s certainly what I would like to do. Partially because of where I’m located in Colorado — much farther from a metropolitan center than Oberlin — the opportunities I get to collaborate with composers are few and far between. Almost all of my own degrees are composition degrees, so I’m a big champion of my own music. The flip side of that is there’s a certain bond that one experiences if one realizes they’re within the realm of violin literature — the spokesman, the mouthpiece, the primary interpreter for one composer. I don’t know if there are many contemporary music specialists that experience this, or if they would want to. But it’s a loyalty; it’s what being a “champion” of music is all about. It’s limited; I’m really just an expert on the one guy, but there’s a devotion there that I think everyone should experience in their career. Where it’s just them [the composer] and you’re there for them even at the expense of everybody else. You get a sort of understanding with the repeated exposure to one composer. You learn a lot being exposed to many different composers. I would say that it’s preferable, but it’s unique to spend time with just one or two composers. At the very least, when you do something like the way things have turned out for me, it’s not about being a contemporary music specialist — its about developing a personal relationship that you take to its logical extreme.
CR: What’s the next step for your career?
GW: I’m realizing that with every passing year, my responsibility as my father’s son, as a representative of music, is only going to increase. At the same time, just like I’d figured out early on, you all do need to break out of the shadow of what has brought us up. As a classical musician, you are going to be immersed in the classical repertoire but there is nothing waiting for you unless you find your own way. If you combine that with the truism that there’s not much new under the sun, what that means is that what I’ve got to do and what you’ve got to do is combine all the things we’ve been exposed to, synthesize this and go in the direction of the combination of what we’ve experienced. So I look forward to doing that.
CR: What does it mean to be invited to play your own father’s work here at Oberlin and to work with Maestro Jiménez?
GW: With the group of people here, the institution, with the student body I had heard about for years through my dad and aunt, who had been on the piano faculty here for many years, I’ve always been intrigued. I love the idea of spending time with such truly talented and driven people — really a unique breed. I’m just thinking after the rehearsals today how impressed I am with the Maestro. He goes after the rehearsals, he takes the time, he goes into the detail that I do when I’m practicing on my own, but I don’t even have such a discriminating sense of breaking things down, more so than any conductor I’ve even worked with. I’m so glad that came to pass. Before this, not knowing exactly what it was going to be like, I just loved the idea of getting back to the roots of my family’s experience on my father’s side — Just getting a taste of what it was like for him but, in this modern manifestation. It’s a pretty personal thing for me — certainly it’s an honor, it’s a thrill. Both my father and I are just so pleased to bring this particular piece back into public awareness. To keep bringing these things back to life is all that we can aspire to.