Obituary: James Walker 1929-2002
The composer and pianist James Walker
played an important part in the University’s music-making for forty years.
As a founder member of the Archduke Trio, he gave his first concert at
the University in October 1961 and his last in May 2002.
His death on October 11, at his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, marks the
end of an era.
Although James was too ill to play at a
scheduled concert two days before his death, clarinettist Catherine Spencer
and pianist Sam Haywood - musicians introduced to me by James several years
earlier - stood in, at short notice, and included in their programme James
Walker’s Second Clarinet Sonatina, the recording of which was played to
James two days later.
For James Walker’s earlier musical
experiences and training, we must go back to the 1940s and his period of
National Service in the Royal Artillery Band (where he played the clarinet)
and Orchestra. Shortly after arriving
as a youthful and already talented pianist, he was summoned: “Walker, go and
pick up your other instrument!” This
turned out to be a harp, and a simple manual. Within
a very short period “Walker” was a competent harpist. He was also instructed to have the Grieg Piano Concerto ready
within a fortnight! During this period
he rubbed shoulders with the horn player Alan Civil and guitarist and lutenist
Julian Bream. James also accompanied
James Galway for a while, though he did not always find Galway’s
arrangements to his taste.
During the 1950s James could be heard playing the harp in the Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden, and at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (as it then was) in Stratford-upon-Avon. Not only was he proud of the fact that he was the first person to play the lute on stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, but that as a composer he wrote the incidental music for a number of Royal Shakespeare Company productions.
Pieces from his music for Much Ado
about Nothing, performed with panache by members of the current RSC Wind
Ensemble at the Memorial Service for James, reminded us of his skill in
orchestration and pastiche. James was Vice-Chairman of the Denne Gilkes
Memorial Fund - a role he took very seriously. The Denne Gilkes Memorial Fund
supports young musicians and actors, and is the chosen charity for donations
in James' memory.
James was a fluent composer in styles that
are often witty. Movements display
clear thinking, and cogent constructions are achieved without fuss. His output includes a series of duos for piano and various
instruments, as well as choral works. In
September 2002 a website, http://www.james-walker.info/,
was set up listing all his available compositions.
Astoundingly, there are almost 80! Two
works of recent years stand out: his Serenade for Strings which was
included in a Proteus Chamber Orchestra concert in November 2001, and a Grand
Duo - an extended composition for piano duet - which was to have had its
premiere on November 27, 2002, but will now be featured in a University
concert in May 2003.
One of the instructive delights of my job
over the past decade was to act as James’s regular page-turner. I was struck not only by his amazing accuracy but also by his
musicianship in works as diverse as the large-scale Tchaikovsky and
Rachmaninov trios and the more experimental work of my predecessor and one of
James’s piano-duet partners in the 1970s and 80s, Andrew Wilson Dickson.
James also gave an annual solo piano
recital, relishing the task of devising programmes that fitted into the
musical ‘theme’ of the year. More
recently, he became particularly inventive, often including works by neglected
or unfashionable composers. From time
to time, with due modesty, he would include a short item of his own. Outside the University, James was a long-standing BBC recitalist
and a teacher of piano at the Birmingham Conservatoire.
After his retirement as an instructor in
September 1991, he continued to play regularly in lunchtime concerts. His last
solo recital at the University, in November 2001, was particularly memorable.
In it he played, for the third time in his University career, one of
his favourite works, Schubert’s last piano sonata, in B flat major. In earlier years, with the Proteus Chamber Orchestra, James was the
soloist in several Mozart piano concertos, taking K.503 to Krefeld in 1990.
A special feature of his playing of the Classical repertoire was his
immaculate phrasing. He was a joy to
work with. Never one to gloss over
imprecise detail, he was a soloist who raised the level of the orchestral
James Walker was much admired and respected by audiences at concerts, and by colleagues at the University. His sensitivity, gentleness, kindness and his unobtrusive enthusiasm made him a friend of many. Since his official retirement James continued his close interest in the planning of programmes and always looked forward to working with the Archduke Trio or the Voces Intimae Quartet, as well as with talented soloists. By doing so he continued to uphold our tradition of fine music making. Shortly before his untimely death, James regarded his inability to take part as merely a postponement - such was his love of playing and his commitment.
In 1975, in recognition of his services to music, he was awarded the honorary degree of Master of Music by the University of Leicester.
James leaves behind his wife Jo and their
son Tom, as well as his son and daughter, Simon and Jane, from his first
marriage to Betty.
Plans have been made to celebrate James's long musical association with the University at a lunchtime concert to be held on January 22, 2003, at 12.45pm in the Music Room (10th floor, Charles Wilson Building). Philip Gallaway (violin), Russell Davis (cello) with Alan Schiller (piano) will play Haydn's Trio in G Major, 'Gypsy Rondo', and Beethoven's first published work, his Trio in E flat major, Op.1, No.1. A memorial event has also been arranged in Stratford-upon-Avon on January 5, 2003 at the Shakespeare Institute.
Last updated: 22 November 2002 17:00
Created by: Rachel Tunstall
Maintained by: Barbara Whiteman
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