On the making of a world premiere and a family legacy

By Gregory Walker

Day 500: December 10, 2009. 7:59 pm. Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Orchestra is on the TV—you never get to see live broadcasts of the legendary ensemble where I live in Louisville, Colorado. I watch the audience find their velvet seats along the stage, already full of musicians, in Philadelphia’s magnificent Verizon Hall. There’s a knock at my dressing-room door and I turn away from the TV monitor. I give my bow one last swipe of rosin. I tuck a 300-year-old Stradivari under my arm. I take a deep breath.

For the past year and a half, I’ve known this day would come.

Day 1: Louisville. One summer day, 500 days earlier, while my nine-year-old was running around the house trying to avoid his violin practice, the mail arrived with a big envelope from Pulitzer Prize–winner George Walker, author of the ubiquitous orchestral Lyric for Strings as well as the recently published autobiography George Walker: Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist.

He’s also my dad.

His music is well known for its craftsmanship, intensity, and complexity. It’s not easy listening, but Dad believes if the music is perfect, it will speak for itself.

I peered inside the envelope: no money this time. It was the score for a new violin concerto.

I’d performed pieces like his first and second violin sonatas, as well as his Poeme for Violin and Orchestra, before. So have such great violin soloists as Eugene Fodor and Cho-Liang Lin. But, this time, at the top of the first page, I saw this piece was dedicated to me.

Day 462: Warsaw. The engineer’s voice crackled over the monitor: “The problem was een the solo violeen. We have to do eet again.”

After a year of preparations, I’d flown to Poland to record the concerto for Albany Records with conductor Ian Hobson and the incredible Sinfonia Varsovia.

There was no problem “een” my violin, the 1718 “ex-Székely” Strad that had premiered the Bartók second concerto in 1939, or with the bow, a rare Eugene Sartory. The Rachel Barton Pine Foundation and Robertson & Sons had arranged their loans when they found out about the recording session for the concerto. I soon came to learn that all that responsiveness and power can only project who you really are.

Day 486: Boulder. I was devouring the full score, breaking down the sections forward and backward, focusing imagery, diet, and breathing as well as working with my pianist wife, Lori, and the pages of her piano reduction.

But it was Nutcracker season and I’m the concertmaster of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra. In the pas de deux, I accidentally snapped a hideously loud pizz. Realizing the lusciousness of the cello entry had just been compromised, our fine principal cellist had limited success stifling a snicker. I had even less success: I was truly the stand partner from hell.

Yet 1,500 miles away, Jim Undercofler, Albany’s CEO, had reviewed my CDs and press and engaged me to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

I had two weeks left to become a great violin soloist.

Day 499: Philadelphia. While Maestro Neemi Järvi heroically gesticulated through the meter changes at the first rehearsal, the fabulous Philadelphians channeled mutual telepathy to glue the whole thing together, one page at a time. To the amusement of players who’d wondered how I’d memorized the thing (including Järvi, who laughed, “You’re a genius!”), my fingers appeared to know what they were doing. The moral support from manager Stephen Millen, and a constellation of orchestral all-stars that includes David Kim, Juliette Kang, Booker Rowe, Judy Geist, Amy Oshiro-Morales, Yumi Huang-Williams, and Norman Carroll—renowned soloists themselves—was way beyond professional.

Day 500: December 10, 2009. 8 pm. Philadelphia. I bow to faces in the balconies rising all the way up into the vaulted ceiling. The orchestra begins and the music is perfect. I honestly have no idea what will come out of my violin. I think of my sons out there somewhere, what they’re thinking, what they’ll remember. My mind, like a cornered rabbit, tries to gnaw its way out of my skull.

The Strad has been here before. And for 500 days, my heart, my soul, and my fingers have been here, too.

Day 501. Coda. I’d ended up performing at my best for the premiere, just like I could in practice, gazing out the window of my Louisville living room, watching the rabbits devour my lawn on a fine summer day.

My whole family had been there to bear witness—my mother to hear the fruits of her inspiration, my brother Ian, taking grim satisfaction in the number of times he was mistaken for me (and evidently signing some autographs along the way).

I did think about what the local critics would write. Dad kept saying I no longer had to prove anything to anyone. “The moment you walked out onstage, you made a statement,” he told me. And I didn’t want to care about what anybody thought anymore.

The final performance had been for me.

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