Meet the conductor: Asheville Symphony finalist Garry Walker

LISTENING ROOM: “Music has been like a companion in life, and the more you know, the deeper you hear it.," says conductor Garry Walker. "Fundamentally, music is not sound, it’s emotion.” Photo by Jack Liebeck
LISTENING ROOM: “Music has been like a companion in life, and the more you know, the deeper you hear it.," says conductor Garry Walker. "Fundamentally, music is not sound, it’s emotion.” Photo by Jack Liebeck

When asked what music he’s listening to outside the classical realm, conductor Garry Walker, from Edinburgh, Scotland, lists an array of jazz and folk artists. “There’s no such thing as highbrow or lowbrow music,” he says. “There’s only good or bad.”

That egalitarian view extends to Walker’s thoughts on attracting more diverse crowds to symphony concerts. The third of six finalists vying for the position of Asheville Symphony’s music director position, Walker says there’s “quite a lot of nonsense” around the idea that classical music exists in a bubble. He dismisses the cost of concert tickets as a barrier, noting the same argument is not made of the price of admission to sporting events.

But, “It’s very difficult to get around the problem that people have to sit reasonably quiet and still,” in this age of diminishing attention spans, he says. At the same time, “the more you know, the more you hear, and the more you enjoy it. You have to invest some time, and I’d say that’s also a good thing. … Music is effectively a language, and in order to learn a language, you have to invest in it.”

Walker will lead a Masterworks concert — in essence, his audition with the local orchestra — on Saturday, Feb. 10. The program includes Malcolm Arnold’s 1957 composition “Four Scottish Dances,” Debussy’s “Marche écossaise,” or Scottish March; Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1., with guest soloist Elena Urioste; and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, known as the Scottish Symphony.

Of that final work, Walker says, “It’s a piece very close to my heart. … I love the fact that Mendelssohn was very clearly inspired by Scotland. As a Scot, I think I’m in the unique position to say this: It just sounds Scottish. It’s the moods of Scotland. The weather, the light, the people, the atmosphere of the country.”

Before becoming a conductor, Walker studied cello as well as piano and flute. He grew up in a musical household — his mother is a pianist — and “it worked its way quite deeply into my DNA.”

He continues, “Music has been like a companion in life, and the more you know, the deeper you hear it. … Fundamentally, music is not sound, it’s emotion.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Walker wasn’t led to conducting by that emotional connection. It was, instead, his interest in becoming a lawyer. “I thought, well, if I’m going to [be] a barrister, I better get some practice for standing in front of people and advocating a cause. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll do the university chamber orchestra.’”

The vocation stuck, and Walker has since traveled the world leading symphonies, to the tune of 280,000 air miles logged. “It comes with the territory,” he says. “An orchestra is not going to travel to you, put it that way.”

WHAT: Garry Walker conducts the Asheville Symphony in Masterworks 4: Scot Free
WHERE: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, 87 Haywood St., ashevillesymphony.org
WHEN: Saturday, Feb. 10, 8 p.m. $11-$43 youth/$24-$69 adult

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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