Coffee Talk with Garry Walker

by Adam Rosen

On Saturday night, the Asheville Symphony Orchestra will perform under the direction of Garry Walker, the third of six candidates competing to be the ASO’s next music director. Walker is currently the Chefdirigent (music director) of the Rheinische Philharmonie in Koblenz, Germany, a city of 111,000 on the Rhine River. Raised in Edinburgh, Walker now lives with his family in Tuebingen, Germany, a university town “just like Oxford or Cambridge, but without the snobbery.” For his ASO program, titled “Scot Free,” Walker will be performing four works inspired by his homeland—though none were written by Scottish composers themselves.

As part of the ASO’s ongoing Coffee Talk interview series, I caught up with Walker at Trade and Lore Coffee on Wednesday, February 7. It was a cold, drizzly morning, but Walker felt right at home.

In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity and length, Walker discusses the influence of Edinburgh’s architecture on him, the differences between being a cellist and a conductor, and his hopeless love for mountains, among other topics.

AR: You grew up in Edinburgh, which still has a well-preserved medieval section—Old Town. Do you think this has had an influence on you in any way? On your playing?
GW: Oh yeah. Well, it’s not just Old Town—it’s New Town as well. New Town is now 300 years old. Historically, it’s fascinating in terms of its political goings on, and as a center of excellence for central banking and finance and things like this. But architecturally, certainly you look at New Town, which is all Georgian–style, and of course, that’s absolutely the time of classical music, of the Classical style: Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven. . . I always feel that my interest in Classical-period music was influenced very much by the fact that I live in a city that was designed at that time.

AR: What’s the biggest misconception about Scotland that people have?
GW: That the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist.

AR: I thought it was just a fantasy.
GW: No, no, no, it’s real. It shows up mostly between six and seven at night when it comes up to feed. On the weekends it’s a bit shy—it tends to work more Mondays through Fridays. It’s part of its contract.

AR: You used to be a cellist. When did you realize you wanted to be a conductor?
GW: It’s hard to know when these things start. I don’t know if there’s ever been a point where I thought, “I want to be a conductor.” It just kind of happened that way. I don’t quite know why. Somehow the cello wasn’t enough on its own. So I started to conduct, and one thing led to another, and next thing I knew I was standing up there conducting.

AR: What’s harder—conducting or playing the cello?
GW: They are different challenges. For me conducting is more of an intellectual challenge, perhaps. And certainly, I would say for conducting you need a whole variety of skill sets: you need to be a part-time psychologist, you have to have the ability to lead, you have to have a large repertoire, understanding of musical style, and a high level of physical precision to be accurate. So you can’t say one is harder than the other. Conducting to me feels like it challenges more of the things that I’m interested in.

AR: You’ve obviously worked extensively with European orchestras during your career. What—if any—are some of the differences between European orchestras and American ones?
GW: In terms of the actual nature of the orchestra, I don’t think fundamentally there’s that much difference. You have excellence in musicianship there and excellence in musicianship here. I’m less inclined to think that orchestras today have a defined sound. I think this used to be the case, fifty, sixty years ago, where orchestras took almost exclusively from their Hochschule or local music college because the people who played in the orchestra taught people who came into the orchestra. Music now is somewhat international. The music marketplace is so much more international. The orchestra I work with in Koblenz has twenty different nationalities, so that’s twenty different people from twenty different musical backgrounds.

AR: What’s the most beautiful venue you’ve ever played?
GW: The Philharmonie in Berlin is very special. The Concertgebouw [in Amsterdam] is also a wonderful venue. The Usher Hall, in Edinburgh, is a very fine concert hall. But I would say the most prestigious hall would be the Philharmonie.

AR: I was looking through your Twitter feed, and I saw shot after shot of snow-covered mountains in Scotland. I take it you’re an enthusiast.
GW: I love mountains. I love mountaineering, I love skiing, I love everything to do with mountains.

AR: Is this part of your attraction to Asheville?
GW: Absolutely. There’s obviously a big outdoor culture here. That‘s clear. One of the reasons I’m trying to come here is that I prefer smaller communities to bigger communities. I like places with an outdoor lifestyle. I like places that support the arts. It matters to me that I work in places I find attractive.

AR: What’s the tallest mountain you’ve ever climbed?
GW: Finsteraarhorn in the Alps, which is taller than 4,000 meters.

AR: As you probably know, this area was settled predominately by Ulster Scots. If you listen to music from our region, such as bluegrass or old-time, can you detect any threads that stretch back to your own area?
GW: Oh yeah. In terms of the instruments used and tonality and everything. The thing about folk music, though, is that in some ways it’s the same the world over. Across Europe, there are very diverse backgrounds musically, but you’re using fundamentally similar instruments: fiddle, accordion, clarinet. It’s a pentatonic system, where you use C-D-E-G-A. The number of melodies you will find in each of those five notes is huge. So folk music always has its similarities.

AR: What made you decide to program a Scottish-themed concert?
GW: You’ll have to ask [ASO Executive Director David Whitehill]. I submitted three programs, and this was the one that they took. The thing I do like about this program is that there’s not a single [composer] in it who’s Scottish. It’s quite a nice point, actually, because the influence of Scotland doesn’t end at the borders.

Adam Rosen is a freelance writer and book editor who lives in Asheville.

www.adammrosen.com