George Walker not just a great composer, but a renowned pianist, too

This article was originally published in The Inquirer on Oct. 31, 1996.

The Steinway in George Walker ‘s music room is 9 feet long, the studio only a few feet longer. Components for digital recording edge every available wall. When George Walker is playing his piano, there’s no room for anyone to listen.

This narrow room is a big chunk of Walker’s world. Night after night at his home in this placid residential neighborhood, the composer makes records – as both performer and engineer.

He tried having his son operate the equipment, Walker says with a smile, but “the room is so small, his presence became intrusive. ‘

Walker, 74, won the Pulitzer Prize this spring for Lilacs, a symphonic and vocal work that the Boston Symphony Orchestra had commissioned. But to hear him tell it, he’d just as soon be recognized for his piano virtuosity.

“I’m a recitalist. I’d like to be recognized as a pianist-composer,” says Walker, who won’t be playing at a concert of his piano music in Philadelphia tomorrow – although he will be there. The Network for New Music is presenting Walker’s music at its fund-raising gala at the Philadelphia Art Alliance. He also will speak to a class at Curtis Institute, his alma mater (1945), where CBS will tape him for a Sunday Morning story.

At the concert, Leon Bates will play Walker’s Piano Sonata No. 3, which he commissioned from the composer in 1976. Soprano Martha Elliott and pianist Susan Nowicki will perform Walker’s Emily Dickinson Songs.

Since retiring four years ago from the music department at Rutgers, State University of New Jersey, Walker has been “working like crazy” at his piano. His goal is to present at least four or five recitals a year, if he can do so without neglecting his composing – including a commission for the New Jersey Symphony that is “hanging over my head. ”

Since then, Walker has made three recordings, subsequently released by Albany Records. Walker doesn’t do the final edits, which are sent out to contractors. However, a stroll through his home makes you think he could. The longtime bachelor – he has been divorced since the ’70s – lives amid good rugs, many books and state-of-the-art audio equipment. Six-foot Yankee speakers dominate the living room adjacent to the Steinway; a NovaBeam television projects programs onto a huge movie screen, dominating another narrow room in which he does his paperwork.

Like his other recordings, the one in progress will include Walker’s own music and works by other keyboard-composers he reveres: Chopin’s etudes, Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Why these dead-and-gone Europeans? “They’re my repertoire, my culture,” Walker says.

Walker is considered the dean of black composers. His work has won every award that composers count significant. He has been played and reprised by dozens of symphonies. But few remember his keyboard prowess. In the 1940s at Curtis, he says, he and pianist Eugene Istomin were Rudolf Serkin’s best students.

Gary Graffman, Curtis president and director who was a teenage student at Curtis when Walker was there, agrees with that assessment. “He was really and truly a major talent,” Graffman says.

In May, Curtis will award Walker an honorary doctorate in music. He already has the real thing. In 1956, he became the first black American to receive the doctorate of musical arts from the Eastman School in Rochester; before he came to Curtis for a postgraduate degree, he had a bachelor’s from Oberlin.

He has broken many color barriers. He was the first black person to graduate from the Curtis Institute and the first to give a Town Hall debut recital in New York. A few weeks later, in 1945, he played the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra after winning its student competition. He believes that made him the orchestra’s first black instrumentalist. In 1968 he was the first black professor to win tenure at Smith College in Massachusetts, with the assistance of the state Commission on Discrimination.

In 1946, the year after his performance with the Philadelphians, Walker says he went backstage after a rehearsal to request an appointment with music director Eugene Ormandy. He wanted to show him his new Lyric for Strings, a work that has become his showpiece.

“He said he didn’t have time,” said Walker, who believes the late conductor was “arrogant and insensitive,” characteristics not unknown to the profession, he said.

That was the first of a string of disappointing encounters that Walker has had with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It took 45 years for the orchestra to play Lyric for Strings, he points out. That was on its first Martin Luther King Concert, which he considers something of a slight. Like most composers, he wants to be performed at subscription concerts.

“I’m not bitter,” Walker said, “but what I would like to say is, why has it taken so long for the Philadelphia Orchestra to recognize what pretty much everyone else accepts? ”

Tomorrow’s Network for New Music event precedes the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Cultural Diversity Initiative Gala at the Clef Club. (The Orchestra Association is holding the long-scheduled gala; the musicians themselves are in the seventh week of a strike. )

However, Walker won’t be attending that event. Until late last week, he wasn’t even invited. When the CDI event was planned months ago, an orchestra spokesman said the planners didn’t know that Walker would be in town for the Network event, which they didn’t know about either. The spokesman and others at the orchestra pointed out that the CDI gala is principally a community celebration and benefit.

It was also to launch the orchestra’s first “African-American Traditions” festival Nov. 1 to 12. Many works by black composers were to be performed, including Hannibal’s African Portraits on subscription concerts and school events; Walker’s Music for Brass was scheduled for a Nov. 10 chamber-music performance. (These concerts will be canceled if the strike continues. )

The Cultural Diversity Initiative aims to address issues of inclusion and diversity at the orchestra. Some insiders say the CDI should make more efforts to include or acknowledge the expertise of classical composers such as Walker; efforts have been made to recruit the support of black jazz players and sports figures.

“Frankly I don’t know what’s going on with their CDI,” Walker says. What he does know is that “orchestra managements know they made mistakes in the past, but in Philadelphia they’re slower to do anything about it. Other orchestras like Baltimore and Cleveland have been making vital efforts to program black composers on their subscription concerts for years. Cleveland came earlier than Baltimore to these issues, although I object to some of the things they’re doing. ”

For instance?

“They put gospel music on their concerts. I don’t like gospel music and I’m not the only black composer who doesn’t. I don’t like the externalization of the spiritual . . . or the wild improvisation. I don’t like the fact it’s almost exclusively associated with the blacks,” says Walker who decries the fact that black culture is widely assumed to be popular culture.

“When I was growing up, gospel music wasn’t even allowed in our church,” he says of northwest Washington’s Shiloh Baptist Church. Not until he got to Curtis did the minister relent, allowing it one Sunday a month. At Shiloh, “we sang Bach and Mozart and Nathaniel Dett” (a black composer who died in 1943). “And Beethoven. ”

Walker was raised in Washington. His father, born in Jamaica, was a physician. His mother was from Washington. “She loved to sing. She had the most beautiful speaking voice, so elegant,” recalls the son, who speaks in quiet, cultivated tones. She insisted that George and his younger sister speak with perfect grammar. “She talked nonstop but it was eloquent. ”

Walker clearly rues the loss of the high culture that permeated his childhood. “The same respect for Mozart and Bach that we heard at church carried over at home. Our piano teacher taught the same things we would have gotten at the Juilliard preparatory department. It was a different world.

“There was culture. ” He doesn’t mean the popular culture of sitcoms and gangsta rap. “All the boys who were my friends studied either piano or violin and we were expected to take it seriously. ”

Many have noted Walker’s gravity, including pianist Leon Bates. “He’s very serious-minded, very disciplined – which comes through in his piano playing. But he’s also lighthearted and easygoing and kind. ” At the premiere of his third sonata at the Kennedy Center years ago, Bates recalls, “George was there with his camera, snapping pictures of everyone. ”

Walker is avid for photography and tennis. Tomes about the art and the sport share space with music scores and the giant Webster’s Third Unabridged Dictionary on his coffee table. Photographs of his sons, Gregory, a violinist, and Ian, a writer, also grace his home.

Andre Raphel Smith, Philadelphia Orchestra associate conductor, has a personal acquaintance with Walker and several of his works including Folk Songs for Orchestra, Antiphonies and the Trombone Con-certo. He believes Walker’s music “has a warm and noble character” and he called the musical voice “unique because of the way it balances moments of tonality and dissonance. His use of form is masterful. ”

If Walker’s symphonic scores haven’t yet been performed by the Philadelphians, “it isn’t so much a statement about his music” as about conductors’ personal choices, Smith said. “I would hope the Pulitzer gives him more visibility. And that people will start hearing his music, because they’re very fine works. ”