Montclair Orchestra celebrates George Walker with ‘Lyric’ concert
Honoring George Walker
Violinist Gregory Walker, the late George Walker’s son, to talk and perform at Montclair Public Library, Friday, March 8, 7 p.m.
The presentation is part of the library’s Adult School program.
To register or for more information call 973-744-0500, ext. 2224, or visit adultschool.org.
Sunday, March 10, 5 p.m.
Central Presbyterian Church, 46 Park St.
Concert will include Walker’s 1946 work “Lyric for Strings.”
Innhyck Cho, principal clarinet for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, will perform Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major.
By GWEN OREL
Montclair Orchestra began planning a concert honoring George Walker more than a year ago. David Chan, the conductor and music director for the Orchestra, worked with Walker to plan it as a living tribute.
Now it’s a memorial.
Walker, a Pulitzer-Prize winning composer and longtime Montclair resident, died last August at the age of 96.
“George Walker himself would tell you that more than wanting to be celebrated as an African American composer or as a Montclair resident, he probably would have wanted to be celebrated as a composer,” said Chan.
Montclair Orchestra’s concert, featuring an early Walker work, “Lyric for Strings” (1946), will take place on Sunday, March 10.
Walker’s later output can be challenging for the listener as well as for the players, but “Lyric” is melodic, and will “pass the listener’s ears very easily,” he said.
“Originally it was a slow movement of ‘String Quartet No. 1.’ Later [Walker] revised it to be played by a full section.”
Walker won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for “Lilacs,” a piece for voice and orchestra. He was the first African American composer to win the Pulitzer for composition. “Lilacs” premiered with the Boston Symphony, conducted by Seiji Ozawa. The next year, Mayor Marion Berry of Washington, D.C., where Walker grew up, declared June 17 George Walker Day.
In 2014, Walker was nominated for the New Jersey Hall of Fame. When he died in August, several Montclair musicians spoke of his generosity and friendliness, calling him humble and kind.
Diane Moser, of Diane Moser’s Composers Big Band, told Montclair Local then that whenever she saw him she’d ask him what he was up to. “Just trying to get people to play my music,” he replied.
For Chan, “Lyric” helped shape the entire program, which also includes Finnish composer
’s “Nonet II,” Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major featuring Innhyuck Cho on clarinet, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor.
Both the Mustonen, which is fast and unsettled, and the Walker, which is contemplative, are “paired with a perennial favorite Mozart piece.”
Montclairites can learn about Walker’s music before Montclair Orchestra’s concert by attending a Montclair Adult School presentation on Friday, March 6. Walker’s son, violinist Gregory Walker, will show a documentary made by Montclair’s Frank Schramm, followed by a talk and a performance of one of his father’s pieces.
George Walker, he said, had been “thrilled that after all this time an orchestra was materializing in the town. He was impressed with the level of musicians being brought in.”
Gregory Walker is coming in from Colorado, where he teaches at the University of Colorado. That the concert is happening after his father died “makes it all the more poignant. This was an opportunity for the whole town to really acknowledge his longtime presence in the community.”
As a child of two musicians — his mother Helen was a concert pianist as well — Walker felt some expectation to become one too, though his brother Ian became a playwright. After a few years of piano lessons he found his grandmother’s violin in the attic.
“Immediately, that represented a way out,” Walker said with a laugh. “I made a deal that if I kept up the violin, they would let me get an electric guitar.” He still “busts it out” a few times a year.
His father wrote a violin concerto for him, and was always pleased he had become a musician. However, Walker said, “he didn’t quite get what I was doing. He had a focused, purist view of what one does as an artist. It’s one of the things that makes him a unique figure in music.
“My work is the opposite of purist. I pull in different styles, rock, electronica, and often use quite a bit of technology. Even if I’m composing for orchestra, I will use video, electric, and electronic instruments.”
While this weekend’s events — Gregory’s presentation and the Orchestra’s performance — will have a special focus on George Walker’s legacy, Chan said that performing Walker’s music will not end here.
“Lyric’ is a good introduction, but it is not representative of [Walker’s] more challenging work,” Chan said. “There’s actually a huge range of accomplishment there. If people like this piece, I’d encourage them to look at some of his other things.”
Walker wrote choral pieces, and many for piano, which was his own instrument.
“It’s good for people to know there was this highly accomplished composer living in their midst,” Chan said. “Lyric” has “a voicing and an approach to harmony that doesn’t sound like anybody else’s. It’s a relatively early work of his. It’s telling to note that at that age, he had such a distinctive voice.”