Interview: Garry Walker

First published in The Herald on 27 January, 2016

News recently in of another astute faculty appointment at the the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland: Garry Walker is to become Artistic Director of Conducting. It’s a new post created especially for the 41-year-old Scot, and it comes hot on the heels of the announcement that Walker will be chief conductor of the Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie Koblenz (the Rhenish State Philharmonic Orchestra) starting in September 2017.

For the RCS this is a solid move, and a pretty obvious one. The Edinburgh-based Walker has long been associated with the institution and has held the title of Visiting Professor of Conducting for the past two years. Application numbers for the Leverhulme Conducting Fellowship have risen from five to nearly 200 under his watch; clearly he’s doing something right. He’s a quick, diligent and approachable musician with a refreshing lack of podium ego, a healthy wit and the ability to set young people at ease. He’s also a notably versatile conductor who has invested his career in contemporary music, community projects and youth orchestras as well as core symphonic repertoire.

If there’s anything 21st-century conductors are likely to need, it’s exactly that kind of openness and pragmatism. Instead of talking to me about grand Mahler symphony cycles or the ideal burnished string sound for Brahms, Walker stresses the importance of contemporary music in a conductor’s training, He says it’s the ‘in’ for a lot of young maestros entering the professional world — “yet still contemporary music is sidelined in a lot of conducting courses, which is shocking. My heart always falls when I see yet another masterclass teaching students how to conduct a Bruckner symphony. I mean, when will they get a chance to conduct Bruckner with a professional orchestra? When they’re 40, maybe, if they’re lucky.” He likens the problem to “keen young composers who write pieces for choir of a thousand plus bathtub. Not exactly a huge chance of repeat performances. Probably better sticking to the string trios.”

Waker himself had a fairly conventional route into the profession. He was brought up in Edinburgh and played the cello. He studied with Ralph Kirshbaum at the Royal Northern College of Music and in 1999 won the Leeds Conductor’s Competition; that same year, he stood in at short notice for Daniele Gatti conducting the opening concert of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Barbican season. Since then he’s had relationships with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (he was principal guest conductor from 2003–2007), the Royal Philharmonic, Paragon Ensemble, Red Note Ensemble and others. He’s respected as a sharp mind and a safe pair of hands; he’s the man entrusted with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s annual fireworks concert at the close of the Edinburgh International Festival, able to keep the beat amid all those bangs.

How will the new position change his day-to-day role at the RCS? “More responsibility,” he says. “I’ll be in charge of coordinating the various strands involving all the student conductors, and of how to do things like ‘integrate’ and ‘innovate’.” The way he pronounces the words make it clear he’s not one for institution speak, but also that he believes in the sentiment. “The climate is right to make things happen at the RCS,” he says.

It certainly seems there’s a new ethos emerging from Renfrew Street. When principal Jeffrey Sharkey arrived in 2014 he declared a manifesto of encouraging students to work outside their own disciplines, empowering staff to be more open-minded and fostering a culture of breadth as well as depth at the institution. Last year the cellist David Watkin was appointed Head of Strings with a pedagogical approach intent on equipping students to think for themselves, not just be spoon-fed technique. The first thing he did was to set up regular classes in which string players sing, dance, improvise theatre sketches or simply lie on the floor and breathe.

The RCS is increasingly waking up to the learning opportunities possible when several disciplines co-exist under one roof, and who better to benefit than conductors? “Think about it,” says Walker. “It is amazing how many different skill sets are needed in order to be a conductor. A good ear and good stage presence. Leadership. Psychology: an orchestra can smell from a mile away someone who is putting on an act, so how you approach people, how you look in front of people, how you talk to people… It all matters.” He describes “so many skills that you either have innately or you don’t” — which raises the question of whether they key magic of conducting can be taught at all.

Walker thinks about this for a moment. If they can be taught anywhere, he ventures, it’s here. He talks enthusiastically about the possibilities of mixing things up with the drama and dance departments: imagine what might be gleaned about stage confidence, movement, charm, charisma. Besides which, he says, the experience of working with various Glasgow performing institutions is worth gold. RCS conductors have a strong relationship with Red Note Ensemble, which offers that critical training in the nimbleness of contemporary music, and with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, which offers a “more-or-less open-door policy” to sit in on rehearsals and assist the chief conductor. Lecture schedules are often cleared during the weeks when Donald Runnicles is in town. In a recent Herald interview, the Spanish conductor Antonio Mendez told me that the countless hours spent in the concert hall — watching, listening, analysing and absorbing rehearsal techniques — were what prepared him most for the profession.

Walker’s other intention is that his new job in Koblenz can provide opportunities for RCS students to spend time in Germany. He describes the Rhenish State Philharmonic Orchestra as “a young, pleasant, well-respected orchestra” whose programming offers him “pretty much carte blanche.” How exactly this exchange system will work hasn’t yet been finalised, but it seems a few German lessons wouldn’t do prospective conducting students any harm.

As for Walker himself? His Twitter feed is full of other people’s photographs of Scottish mountains; he’s an avid hillwalker who bagged his last Munro at 30, but two young children and two new jobs means he doesn’t have a chance to get up north much these days. He misses it, he admits, but he’s in no rush. “I feel like a completely different conductor now to the one I was 10 years ago. Life unfolds at its own pace and that’s OK. The next few years will be a bit mad but that’s OK, too. I don’t feel I need to do it all now. Anyway,” he adds, “I have no doubt I’ll conduct Bruckner better when I’m 80.”