On March 16, 1920, a baby named Charles Dodsley Walker opened his eyes for the first time in a state most known for its bright lights. Little did anyone know at the time, Walker would be under the bright lights of New York City 92 years later, conducting more than 700 people at the iconic Carnegie Hall. There were many steps along the way that would lead to this upcoming performance, including one which landed Walker, then 16, at Trinity College for a liberal arts education, studying the organ under the late Clarence Watters, a renowned organist. On Monday, January 14, 2013, Walker ‘40 will conduct what he calls “The Eighth Eighth.” For the eighth time, Walker will conduct Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, a monumental work written in 1911, which will feature 700 singers and instrumentalists, including approximately 400 children.
“It gets easier every time,” says the spirited Walker (pictured), who was part of the glee club and the choir at Trinity. “It gets better every time.”
(photo: 1940 Trinity Ivy yearbook)
Walker has continued to perfect Mahler’s piece -- first conducting the work in 1977 with the Caterbury Chorale Society, who has performed it every five years since at Carnegie Hall and the Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Center in New York City. This year’s event was scheduled for November 3, before Hurricane Sandy altered its course and postponed the event on November 1, just two days before the show. To say adjustments needed to be made is an understatement, as fifty-two chorus members from Mexico City had already flown into New York for what would have been a highlight experience for any singer. Forty of the singers will fly back in January, for the opportunity to sing at one of the world’s renowned concert halls. The performance is expected to fill the hall’s 2,800 seats.
“Trinity prepared me in a wonderful way for this,” Walker said from his home while reorganizing plans to shift a 700-person concert to a later date. Walker studied modern languages at Trinity, which will come in handy, as the work is comprised of three languages, including English, German, and Latin. Musically, he credits Watters as one of his biggest inspirations. “I loved Trinity and I’ll always be grateful for my time there,” he added.
It’s easy to see how Walker acquired the passion and skills required to conduct a diverse range of musical talents. Growing up, he says, his mother always sang while dusting the house, and his father played ragtime piano. One of his brothers played the trumpet and another, the violin. Walker began to seriously focus on his professional career at age 10, when he returned to New York after having spent most of his childhood years in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. He began intense study at the Cathedral of Saint John the Devine, leading up to his days at Trinity. Needless to say, time was thin for Walker.
“I didn’t have much of a social life,” he said while recollecting what he called some of his fondest memories from his time here. “All that changed for the better at Trinity.”
After graduating from Trinity in 1940, Walker spent time in Germany, having been commissioned by the U.S. Department of State to perform in a 40-city concert tour as part of a showcase of American culture overseas. Walker said his liberal arts education allowed him to study a range of subjects, including mathematics and science, which broadened his opportunities and opened up doors for him at home and abroad. His studies took him to the Graduate School of Music at Harvard, and then to MIT to study mathematics, which was instrumental during his time with the United States Navy, where he was useful for both his strategic abilities and his musical capabilities, providing entertainment and morale during an otherwise difficult period during World War II.
“We had to make the best of it in any way we could,” he said. “I was supremely happy when the war was over. War is a cruel thing. I felt so relieved that the bloodshed would end.”
After the war, Walker re-dedicated his focus to music, returning to Harvard to study music theory and conducting, and later founding the Canterbury Chorale Society in 1952. The society continues to grow, and is largely funded by the Mahler performances, which the group, led by Walker, is responsible for. Walker’s musical background extends as a church organist, a choir master, and a music teacher at schools including New York University (NYU), and the Manhattan School of Music. But for any musician, performing at Carnegie Hall is difficult to top.
“Every time is exciting,” Walker said about performing Mahler’s works at Carnegie Hall. “I remember my first time performing there, with my mother and father there,” he said. “It’s always a thrill to be at Carnegie Hall.”
For more on the “Eighth Eighth” at Carnegie Hall on January 14, visit: http://bit.ly/Zm1zuu.