From Jackson Public School to classical conducting in Vienna
By SARAH WARNOCK
Oct. 21, 2017
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — When Mississippi native William Walker saw the suffering and devastation amassed by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, he felt a deep desire to help those affected.
Having recently graduated from the Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna, the talented musician and conductor has been residing in Vienna, Austria, the classical music oasis of the world, and living out his dreams as a professional conductor.
He's come home to Jackson for now, committing himself to conducting a free hurricane benefit orchestra concert. He says Belhaven University agreed to the use of its Center for the Arts Concert Hall. "They were very generous."
Walker was educated in the Jackson Public School system from grades K-12, attending Murrah High School briefly his senior year before being invited to attend Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan.
"It was never really my plan to not graduate from Murrah, but going to Interlochen was a tremendous opportunity ... after becoming more established and recognized, it is my long-term goal to start an Interlochen-esque school here in Mississippi."
You can take the man out of Mississippi, but can you take Mississippi out of the man?
When asked what he misses most about home, he answers, "People and food, without a question. Food that you just can't get in other parts of the country, but you really can't get overseas. They asked me to cook over there, and I try to cook Mississippi food, but it doesn't taste the same because they don't have the right ingredients. It's funny though, one of my favorite restaurants in Vienna is a Mexican restaurant.
Vienna is also a kind of mecca for musicians. Influential composers and musicians such as Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss, Gustav Mahler and many others lived there either permanently, or studied there for a while. Also, concerts occur on pretty much every day and are often sold out. Long story short, I feel like I became a better musician just by hearing/seeing musicians of this caliber on a regular basis."
"A lot of lawmakers think if you put money into the arts then that means that we have to take money away from infrastructure or from math and science education. But (every) place that is considered a really great place to live on a global index, they all spend a lot of money on arts education.
The Mississippi Symphony strings program, free symphonic educational concerts and the free strings concert where school kids are exposed to the Mississippi Symphony at Thalia Mara- I wouldn't be here (a conductor) without those three things. It's my foundation, how I got here ... I think about that all the time.
The biggest difference between society here (in America) and there is that the Austrian government believes that the only way to have a truly prosperous society is by supporting arts organizations ...This is a lot of money, but when you realize that Austria's entire budget is less than what the U.S. spends on its military alone, that shows just how seriously they take the arts."
Walker says it wasn't too hard to decide what to include in the benefit concert. He believes Beethoven's 5th is all about fate, and hurricanes parallel elements of the symphony's movements.
When he composed it, Beethoven was finding out that he was definitely going deaf.
"It's, of course, very stormy in the first movement, and in the second movement it's a little bit reflective of what's just happened, and then in the third movement it's 'OK, now we're here, what do we do next?' And then the fourth movement is triumphant — triumphing over adversities."
The other piece to be performed at the concert is Samuel Barber's 'Adagio for Strings' a work Walker notes is often used in modern media in times of tragedy.
"The musicians involved are very dedicated and excited about the project ... we have really, really great musicians in Mississippi. Any opportunity to hear them play or for me to work with them is exciting. I've played with some of them but I've never conducted them in Mississippi before," Walker says.
The concert hopes to raise funds via donations from concertgoers and the community. The show will be performed by musicians from the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Belhaven Orchestra and faculty from Belhaven, Jackson State, Mississippi State, Millsaps College and Mississippi College. All proceeds will be managed by the Red Cross.
In the old days, many conductors were tyrants. It's different now," Walker says.
"The musicians have good instincts. I like to facilitate their instincts. It a unifying thing, that's the conductor's job, but also to let the musicians be expressive so they can communicate with the audience freely.
'Maestro' and 'conductor' are often used interchangeably, but really there is a difference. 'Maestro' comes from Italian and means literally 'master'; thus when one is called a maestro it is the highest form of respect. Normally you introduce yourself as a conductor and others call you maestro (if they like you!)."