Pittsburgh Opera welcomes young Aussie as its new music director

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No white hair here: The Pittsburgh Opera has gone after a young and relatively unknown maestro to be its new music director.

Australian Antony Walker, 38, was hired yesterday to succeed John Mauceri, making him among the youngest directors of a major American opera company.

Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, left, and Antony Walker, the new music director of the Pittsburgh Opera, greet well-wishers after the opera named Mr. Walker to the post.
Click photo for larger image.

"He is not a household name now," said Mark Weinstein, the opera's general director. "But within the industry, his name is hot. We think we are grabbing onto a superstar. This has nothing to do with money. This is the best person for the company."

Mr. Walker begins immediately, and will conduct productions of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" and Britten's "Billy Budd" in spring. The opera's board approved his three-year contract yesterday, which calls for him to conduct at least two of the company's four productions each year and to participate in its repertoire and artistic decision-making with artistic director Christopher Hahn.

Mr. Walker will continue to be based in Washington, D.C., where he is music director of the Washington Concert Opera. His previous local experience was directing the Pittsburgh Opera Center young artists in Monteverdi's "The Return of Ulysses" in 2004.

"I am thrilled," said Mr. Walker. "I had a great time conducting 'Ulysses' and saw how serious and dedicated the Pittsburgh Opera is to putting on this art form. The company has a fantastic history behind it, but it has a bright future ahead of it."

His previous experience consists of guest-conducting such companies as New York City Opera and Minnesota Opera, leading several small companies and even founding a few in his native Sydney, Australia.

While most audience members do not know Mr. Walker's name, his reputation in the industry is of a rising talent.

"He is an up-and-comer," said Dale Johnson, artistic director of the Minnesota Opera. "I think the buzz on him is very strong. He is a brilliant choice for Pittsburgh Opera."

Mr. Johnson originally hired Mr. Walker to conduct a Mozart opera, but soon engaged him to lead a run of contemporary operas: John Adams' "Nixon in China," Poul Ruders' "The Handmaid's Tale" and Laurent Petitgirard's "Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man."

"What is striking is the range of repertory he is comfortable with," Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Walker also has earned recognition as a baroque conductor. In addition to leading the Pittsburgh Opera Center in Monteverdi, he recently opened the New York City Opera season with a production of Handel's "Semele," featuring Vivica Genaux, to some critical plaudits.

"Conductor Antony Walker fused all those diversely excellent singers into a genuine ensemble, and the director ensured that each musical flourish had its specific dramatic intent," wrote Justin Davidson of Newsday.

Baltimore Sun classical music critic Tim Smith saw that production and several that Mr. Walker has led at Washington Concert Opera and Wolf Trap Opera. "The operas I have heard him conduct have had a combination of propulsion and sensitivity that sounds just right," he said.

In addition to Washington Concert Opera, Mr. Walker will continue to serve as co-artistic director of Pinchgut Opera in Sydney and conduct as a guest for other companies.

Mr. Walker was born in Sydney to a Hungarian mother and Australian father. They were not musicians, but encouraged his musical activity. He began piano lessons at 8 and composing at 9, and later took up the cello and sang tenor. At the University of Sydney, he studied all four, though conducting began to take most of his extracurricular time. After graduating, he ran the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, was chorus master and conductor of the Welsh National Opera and established several ensembles. All told, he has founded two choirs (Contemporary Singers, Cantillation), two orchestras (Sinfonia Australis and Orchestra of the Antipodes) and one opera company (Pinchgut Opera).

It is Mr. Walker's wide range of experience within the industry that most impressed Mr. Hahn.

"He is a grass-roots person," he said. "He has worked with choruses, coached, played in an orchestra, sung, played master classes, done productions, worked with young artists, been a rehearsal pianist and had his own opera company."

Mr. Hahn and Mr. Weinstein look for the conductor to immerse himself in every musical aspect of the opera. "I expect the orchestra, chorus and singers to sound better," said Mr. Hahn, who added that he wants to get the conductor involved with the Pittsburgh Opera Center.

Mr. Walker has set his own style of leadership. "A big part of conducting, for me, is diplomacy," he said. "You have to talk to people in the right way to get results."

Apparently his methods work. "The orchestra loved working with him," said Mr. Johnson of the Minnesota Opera. "He has a sweet, youthful way of approaching music that is quite appealing. The orchestra caught his enthusiasm."

That was obviously a selling point for Pittsburgh Opera, which is hoping Mr. Walker's enthusiasm will rub off on audiences as well.

Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.


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