William Garfield Walker steps into the principal’s office at Casey Elementary, eyes bright with expectation and smile wide with nostalgia. He’s greeted with the same, plus hugs and “How’s your mom and dad?” exchanges, dissolving the decades since he was a student here.
“Elementary school is five years. This is the school that I went to for the longest period of time in my entire life,” Walker says with a chuckle. From this, trace a trajectory that includes the MSO-JPS Strings Program through Chastain, Murrah and Power APAC, Interlochen Arts Academy, Chicago College of Performing Arts, the Royal College of Music in London and the Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna.
At 28, he’s an emerging conductor establishing himself on the world stage, living in Vienna and soaking up the city’s centuries of classical music. At Casey this morning, he’s the musically gifted boy now grown and making them proud, home in Jackson for a guest-conductor slot at a sold-out Mississippi Symphony Orchestra (MSO) chamber concert.
At that concert, he leads the orchestra in Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” with expressive command, dapper in his tux and tails as he sweeps the music along. A rousing standing ovation greets the finish. A curtain call pulls him back for yet another bow.
The son of Romaine Richards Walker and William Walker Jr., and the middle child bookended by two sisters, Walker was surrounded by art early at Casey Elementary, an Arts Access school.
An MSO education concert for JPS students first sparked his interest. “That was always a big highlight for all of us. … One, it was a field trip. But two, it was a lot of fun in general. It was a real show for the kids.
“I was always inspired to play an instrument, because of seeing that.” He can’t say what drew him to the cello besides, “I wanted the biggest one. … What I actually meant was the double bass, but I guess they didn’t have one.” He’s happy he got the cello. “With the double bass, flying with it is a huge hassle. It’s already a hassle flying with the cello. You have to buy a second seat.”
Walker was playing professionally with MSO while still in high school. Cello playing launched a musical curiosity that’d also explore saxophone, bassoon, horn, euphonium, piano and organ. He’s big into learning. “I think I always will be, until I die. I’m going to be getting my last breath and it’s like, ‘Oh, what is this?’” he adds with a laugh.
“I had an interest in every part of the music going on, when I was playing the cello part. I always wanted to learn how to play every instrument. … Being a conductor unifies all of that.”
As an orchestral conductor, Walker has worked with orchestras in Europe and the United States, including the Berlin Sinfonietta, Bratislava Symphony Orchestra, Cabrillo Festival Orchestra and more.
In 2018, he held a conducting fellowship at the prestigious international Aspen Music Festival, considered one of the top classical music festivals in the country “and a huge deal for me,” he says. “They throw a lot of music at you, and you’re expected to swim. And if you don’t, you can easily sink, and very quickly. It’s not easy.”
Vienna is home now, where he feeds off the city’s rich, centuries-old musical traditions of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Mahler, Strauss and so many more. It’s akin to country musicians flocking to Nashville and jazz musicians marinating in the ambiance of New Orleans. “This is something that blows my mind a little bit. When I got the call from MSO, and they asked me to do Schubert, I was standing inside a building on the street where Schubert used to drink his coffee.”
Even as COVID-19 disrupts life worldwide, Walker is optimistic NOW!’s debut will be able to happen if not in October as planned, in early 2021. Recording concerts, releasing a CD and tours are also in the works. Walker is the artistic head of the effort, and sees a huge opportunity in Vienna to perform music that doesn’t often get a hearing otherwise. The first season will include music from composers active after World War II’s end, moving into the Cold War era. “Vienna is a very symbolic city in terms of that time period … It makes sense. We’re also in the 75th anniversary of the end of the war.” Programs will include music by American composers (including Woodville composer William Grant Still), as well as Soviet, Austro-German, and French composers.
Walker is also rethinking the way concertgoers perceive classical music. People talk about pop, rock, country and rap concert audiences in terms of thousands. “But with classical music, it’s like, ‘OK, now we’re going to try outreach to get more audiences.’ What? Something’s wrong.
“My mission in life is to change that.” Not that classical concerts should be super informal, he says, “but I think that it should be more informal. I’ll put it like this: In Beethoven’s day, when somebody wasn’t clapping after a solo … then he’s looking around, like, ’What’s wrong with this music? People don’t like it?’” After Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 premiered, the second movement earned so much applause — “which you’re not supposed to do in classical music, clapping between movements,” Walker chides with a chuckle — they played it twice more, before moving on. “I want to return to that.”
Walker had been due back in Jackson in June for MSO’s Premier Orchestral Institute (POI) but with the COVID-19 pandemic, the intensive summer festival for elementary through college-age musicians was rescheduled for 2021. Walker is the artistic director and conductor of its Master Camerata Orchestra (professional-level orchestra with a mix of professional and university musicians); the conducting institute he’d planned to start at POI will now have to wait a year.
Eventually, Walker hopes to have a base in Europe, “and a base here,” he says. America? Mississippi? Jackson? He grins. “All of the above.”