Glenn Korff School of Music to host George Walker Festival April 5

The Glenn Korff School of Music's George Walker Festival on April 5 will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth. Walker was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1996. Photo courtesy of
The Glenn Korff School of Music's George Walker Festival on April 5 will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth. Walker was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1996. Photo courtesy of

The Glenn Korff School of Music will host the George Walker Festival on Tuesday, April 5 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Walker (1922-2018) was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his work “Lilacs” for voice and orchestra in 1996.

“Beyond work that choirs have done in recent years, within the last seven or eight years, I haven’t seen any concerts or festivals with the School of Music that have ever celebrated black composers, so this just made total sense for us to have a festival that includes many different people, and not just choirs,” said Assistant Professor of Music in Choral Activities Marques L.A. Garrett, who is organizing the festival.

The Glenn Korff School of Music’s University Singers, Chamber Singers and UNL Symphony Orchestra will all be participating, as well as Hixson-Lied Professor of Piano Mark Clinton and Associate Professor of Voice Jamie Reimer Seaman. Two local choirs from Lincoln Northeast and Lincoln High will also be participating.

Highlighting the festival will be the premiere of a new piece commissioned by the Glenn Korff School of Music titled “We Are the Music Makers,” composed by Reginal Wright, a composer, conductor and educator from Arlington, Texas, who has won many awards during his 20-year career at the middle and high school levels.

“I like it,” Garrett said of the work. “I wanted something that was not going to be super challenging because my research area is in black choral music of black composers most specifically, and one of the challenges has been finding music that developing high school choirs can do. So yes, this is a commission, and you can write anything. But I really need something that anybody can just pick up.”

The piece will be guest conducted by A. Jan Taylor, director of choral music activities and assistant professor at Prairie View A&M University in Texas. Prior to her appointment at Prairie View, Taylor taught general music, piano and trained choirs in elementary, middle and high schools in the Houston Independent School District and is the founding director of Intermezzo, a professional vocal chamber ensemble.

“I’ve known her for a number of years,” Garrett said. “I just respect her musicianship. I’ve seen her work with festival choirs before, and just what she’s able to do with choirs is commendable. Any way that I can allow our students, other students and the community to see any type of musician or clinician who is from any of the minoritized groups or underrepresented groups, especially when it comes to conductors, I want to take that opportunity.”

There will be two public performances that day, as well as a panel discussion. The first performance is at noon at Sheldon Museum of Art. Graduate students from the Glenn Korff School of Music will perform solo works by black composers.

At 6:30 p.m., there will be a pre-concert panel discussion at Kimball Recital Hall moderated by Assistant Professor of Composition Greg Simon that will include Garrett, Taylor, Reimer Seaman and Assistant Professor of Music in Musicology Paula Harper on diversity in music.

At 7:30 p.m. will be the evening concert in Kimball Hall featuring works by Walker, including Piano Sonata No. 2 performed by Clinton; “Lyric,” performed by the UNL Symphony Orchestra; “O Praise the Lord” performed by University Singers; “Stars” performed by the Chamber Singers; “Lilacs,” which won the Pulitzer Prize, will be performed by Reimer Seaman and pianist Stacey Haneline; “Music for Three” and “String Quartet No. 1,” which will be performed by two student groups; as well as the premiere of “We Are the Music Makers,” which will include a combined choir consisting of the University Singers, Chamber Singers and the two high school choirs.

All of these events are free and open to the public.

Walker’s Piano Sonata No. 2 (1956) was written as the composer’s doctoral dissertation at the Eastman School of Music.

“It is a four-movement, neo-classical work conceived as a study in brevity—altogether a performance lasts about 12 minutes,” Clinton said. “I am thrilled to be part of the celebration of George Walker’s 100th birthday organized by Dr. Marques Garrett. As the first Black composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for music, Walker is tremendously important as a historical figure in 20th century American classical music. More importantly, however, his music is incredibly well crafted and displays a unique and powerful voice. In short, Walker’s music needs to be heard more frequently on the concert stage, and I’m thrilled to share this incredible sonata with all who can attend the concert.”

Graduate student Mary Daugherty will be conducting the University Singers.

“What a wonderful privilege it is to conduct Walker’s exciting ‘O Praise the Lord’ in this festival,” she said. “It is our hope that George Walker’s legacy echoes in the hearts of our performers and audience. Surely there is no timelier reminder to celebrate this trailblazing composer than the 100th anniversary of his birth.”

Garrett said audiences should expect a wide range of music from Walker’s works.

“There’s some easily palatable music for our novice classical audience members,” Garrett said. “But then we’ll also have some music that is more challenging, and it shows how Dr. Walker was able to live comfortably along the spectrum of classical expression.”

Garrett hopes the festival will help students diversify their repertoire choices.

“I hope that they see that even though you can identify a composer based on any of the physical characteristics, that it does not have to necessarily give you an idea of what their music will sound like,” he said. “George Walker’s music can stand up with Shostakovich and with John Cage and Aaron Copland. Hopefully they start thinking about how they can diversify their repertoire choices. Far too often, we rest on music by composers that had been promoted and celebrated and canonized because a small group of people decided their music was good. But we know there were others who were writing and just didn’t get the promotion or who tried to write, but they were discouraged.”

Garrett is looking forward to the festival and sharing the music of Walker.

“It’s all about the celebration,” he said.