MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

George Walker is a trailblazer among African-American composers. He's had more than 80 commissions and in 1996, he won a Pulitzer Prize. Now the 87-year-old has done something he's never done before. He's written a work for his son, a violinist. Gregory Walker is premiering his father's violin concerto this week with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Joel Rose has the story.

JOEL ROSE: Gregory Walker didn't know his father was writing a violin concerto for him until the finished score showed up in the mail.

GREGORY WALKER: Didn't know about it until it was too late. He maintained the element of surprise. And I think, along with that, the element of artistic control. And he's an expert at that.

ROSE: Something that George Walker doesn't entirely deny, but the composer says he knew his son was up to the task.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GEORGE WALKER: It's not a long work. But it's a very intense, difficult and challenging work for both the soloists and the orchestra.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: George Walker has been writing intense, sometimes difficult music for more than 50 years. Walker was born in Washington, D.C. He was the first black pianist to give a recital at New York's town hall in 1945. Walker studied composition with two of the best: Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Rosario Scalero at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. But success as a composer did not come easily.

Mr. GEORGE WALKER: I had to find my own way. A way of doing something that was different, something that I would be satisfied with.

ROSE: Walker's patience was rewarded in 1996, when he became the first black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, for the piece �Lilacs.�

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Even Gregory Walker admits it took him a while to understand his father's music.

Mr. GREGORY WALKER: I just was weaned with his particular approach to the art from a time when I didn't understand what he was going for. It was just as abstract to me as it can be for other lay listeners. But in time � with different kinds of exposure � I've really learned to embrace and hopefully communicate what he has in mind.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Gregory Walker has made a specialty out of playing his father's compositions. This is a recording they made together of his Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Gregory Walker is also the concertmaster of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra in Colorado. When George Walker sat down to write his new violin concerto, he knew he wanted his son to give the world premiere.

Mr. GEORGE WALKER: I wanted him to have the opportunity of performing a work on a larger scale for a larger audience than he had ever done before. I had hoped that I could persuade at least one orchestra to allow him to play.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: It almost didn't happen. The Philadelphia Orchestra was in talks to perform the concerto at Carnegie Hall earlier this year � with a different violinist. George Walker said no. But his son Gregory admits he's not the kind of superstar soloist whose name alone can sell tickets.

Mr. GREGORY WALKER: We know that there are other people who, if they set their minds to it, can play this music. And that's one of my main aspirations: that I can at least hold the torch long enough, without singeing myself, to pass it on to a great player who can make a vehicle of it and really deliver it to the wider audience it deserves.

Mr. GEORGE WALKER: I'd like to correct that. The fact is that in insisting that he play the concerto, I was aware that he could do justice to the work. Don't for a minute think that there's anybody who's going to play it better than he. Don't for a minute think that.

ROSE: What George and Gregory Walker both hope is that their collaboration will bring attention to one piece and two careers that deserve more of it.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You can to listen to part of that violin concerto from its Philadelphia premiere at nprmusic.org.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.