Celebrating the life of George T. Walker, A Piano Pioneer

George T. Walker is a man of many firsts. He was the first black instrumentalist to perform at Manhattan’s town hall, the first to be invited to appear with the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 1950, Walker became the first black pianist to be signed by a major artist management company, and in 1956 Walker was the first black man to earn a doctoral degree from the University of Rochester Eastman School of Music.

It’s at this same school where Walker’s work and life will be celebrated on April 2. The 95-year-old will be honored with a special alumnus recital in the prestigious Hatch Hall, where his five piano sonatas will be performed by Albanian pianist Redi Llupa. Walker’s son Gregory will also accompany the music.

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“I’m both grateful and happy this has been arranged and so much effort has been put into it, by the persons who have been involved. This is a very important event for me,” said Walker.

It’s not the first time the Eastman School chose to honor Walker’s accomplishments. In 1975, he received an Alumni Achievement Award and, in 1996, the Rochester Distinguished Scholar Medal. The same year he became the first black composer to receive the Pulitzer Prize.

But, for a man who broke barriers for black instrumentalists, he’s quite humble. Never seeing himself as a trailblazer, Walker says he simply wanted to play.

“I never realized until later, until much later the impact it had,” he said.

But, his work did have an impact. His music has been played by virtually every major orchestra in the United States, many in England, and other countries.

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“George Walker is one of the great musical visionaries of our age,” said Lee Koonce, President & Artistic Director of the Gateways Music Festival. The biennial festival brings black classical artists together for a series of concerts and performances. “His music is engaging, often brilliantly rhythmic and frequently contains very American references. Eastman and Gateways Music Festival are delighted to celebrate Dr. Walker’s 95th birthday year and we congratulate him on his extraordinary career.”

A career that Walker could not have imagined during his first piano lesson at just five years old. It was his mother, Rosa King, who arranged his training but Walker said he wasn’t initially thrilled with the idea.

“I just wondered when I could go out and play next,” said Walker. His piano teachers recognized his talent and urged him to continue, and it was a good thing he did.

“George Walker is one of the most prolific and accomplished American composers of the last century,” said Dean Jamal Rossi. “In addition to having been awarded the coveted Pulitzer Prize, he has been honored by some of our nation’s leading cultural organizations including the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the American Classical Music Hall of Fame. We are very proud to consider Dr. Walker as one of Eastman’s most distinguished alumni, and I am privileged to know him as a friend.”

More information about the event: The Eastman School of Music will celebrate Walker’s 95th birthday year of composer and pianist George Theophilus Walker in a special alumnus recital on Monday, April 2 at 7:30 p.m., in Hatch Recital Hall at Eastman. The performance will be followed by a champagne toast and reception in Wolk Atrium. This event is free and open to the public.

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