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George Walker is the recipient of the President's Alumni Award

George Walker

Curtis alumnus George Walker’s Lyric for Strings was performed by the Curtis Symphony Orchestra on April 29, and he received the President's Alumni Award at Commencement in May. Fellow alumnus William Short (Bassoon ’10) asked Mr. Walker about his Curtis memories.

Evening lessons with Rudolf Serkin in a room “so dark you could hardly see the keys.” The Common Room, “so elegant, and so removed from all the things that one knew existed—bigotry even in churches, and in the restaurants—but when you walked in there, it was so peaceful and so elegant.”

Into this evocative environment entered the young George Walker (Piano and Composition ’45), who after graduating from the Curtis Institute of Music would become a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, pianist, and advocate for social justice. His latest work, Sinfonia No. 5, deals with the 2015 Charleston church massacre; the National Symphony will premiere it in the 2019–20 season.

Initially admitted alongside longtime friend Seymour Lipkin (Piano ’47) as a piano student of Rudolf Serkin, George soon found himself unable to expend his seemingly boundless energy solely through piano-related pursuits: “I needed to do more than practice five hours a day.” He began to study composition with the legendary Rosario Scalero, whose insistence on starting every one of his students with the fundamentals of counterpoint fascinated George. “The more linear aspects of writing,” while not necessarily of interest to every composer of his generation, were definitely of interest to him. He made it his goal “to infuse what I do with some of these elements which are considered archaic,” but to use them “so that they don’t seem academic.”

Impressively for a man who, in addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize, has been awarded seven honorary doctorates (including one from Curtis, in 1997) and two Guggenheim Fellowships and has been inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, among numerous other accolades, George’s most earnest desire is “just to have people hear my music. That’s all I want.”

—William Short (’10), principal bassoon of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra


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