Preview: Piano prodigy George Walker blends spirituals into work for Pittsburgh Symphony

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We often refer to those who perform or compose music for a living as professional musicians. But that suggests that they study when young and then begin their careers like many do, after college (or sometimes conservatory). Yet the most gifted, like prodigies in any field, do this more for life than a living.

That's certainly the case with George Walker. He began studying piano at age 5, had a successful career as a soloist (studying with Rudolf Serkin) and then gravitated to composing (studying with Rosario Scalero, who taught Samuel Barber, and with influential teacher Nadia Boulanger). He counts nearly every one of his 90 years alive as his career, so much so that he doesn't really see his accomplishments as unusual. That includes his often-programmed "Lyric" for Strings and this weekend's Sinfonia No. 4, "Strands," a new work the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will perform.

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

With: Arild Remmereit, conductor; Gil Shaham, violin.

When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.

Tickets: Start at $20; or 412-392-4900.

"I am always thinking about music," he says. "The process is going on all the time."

What of degrees from Oberlin, Curtis and Eastman? Just part of the journey.

Playing Rachmaninoff's ridiculously difficult Piano Concerto No. 3 with Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy? Not a surprise.

Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for his voice and orchestra work, "Lilacs"? He is pragmatic about it.

Similarly, being black has not had a dominating effect on his creativity. Take spirituals, which he intertwines in "Strands." Mr. Walker views them as the heritage of America. "The wealth of spirituals is incredible. They should be regarded as folk songs and not a part of a racial identity. The shape of melody and rhythmic contours are so remarkable, even though we don't know where they come from. It is important to recognize them outside the social context."

"Strands" is a short piece, about 10 minutes, and was commissioned by the PSO and several other orchestras. "I am tying together several disparate types of music into it. There are phrases of two spirituals that are different in character [from each other] and from the principal theme and passagework. The complexity of being able to alternate between the different facets, sometimes combining them, is something I take pride in -- the formal aspect of organizing material."

He actually doubts many listeners will notice the quotes of the spirituals. "If they know the spirituals, if they can manage to focus long enough. It won't be easy, they pass very quickly."

Not at all like his life in music.

The program includes Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5, "Turkish," and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1, "Winter Dreams."


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod: or 412-263-1750. He blogs at


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