John Walker, an American Institution
Contributed by Jordan Prescott, student of Dr. Walker and Baltimore AGO member.
Former Baltimore chapter Dean and immediate past National President John Walker was awarded the American Guild of Organists Endowment Fund Distinguished Artist Award on April 27 at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dr. Walker's recital served as musical retrospective of his career and was delivered to a packed house who welcomed him to the stage with a standing ovation.
Each piece on the program highlighted a significant period in John’s storied career. He opened the program with Guilmant’s triumphant March on a Theme of Handel. Having thrice succeeded the legendary Virgil fox—first at the Riverside Church in New York City and later at Brown Memorial Presbyterian and the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore—Walker performed Fox’s setting of “Come, Sweet Death” in memory of Franklin Mitchell, who voiced the Shadyside organ and asked that Walker play the piece in his memory. Though John enrolled at American Conservatory in the hope of studying with Dr. Leo Sowerby, this plan was foiled by Sowerby’s appointment to the National Cathedral. Nevertheless, Walker paid homage to his years at American Conservatory in Chicago with Leo Sowerby’s Requiescat in Pace. Highlighting the compositions of his friends and colleagues, the program also included Larry King’s Resurrection suite and John Weaver’s Sine Nomine, which was written for the dedication of the Shadyside organ. Both Tournemire’s improvisation on the Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes and Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s Third Symphonic Canzona for organ, violin, and treble choir highlighted Walker’s affinity and reputation for music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The program closed with one of John’s signature pieces, the Concert Variations on Old Hundredth by John Knowles Paine.
Following the final variation with rapid pedal passages, the audience leapt to their feet calling Walker back to the stage seven times. As AGO Executive Director announced at the gala reception following the recital, over 56,000 dollars was raised in John Walker's honor for the AGO Endowment Fund, making this the most successful gala to date--a testament to the lasting impact Walker has had on the Guild. Dr. Daniel Aune and Dean Abra Bush of the Peabody Institute lauded John’s career as a university professor, serving six institutions and inspiring generations of young organists. Walker carried his commitment to young organists with him during his time as National President and Vice-President founding both the Pipe Organ Encounters and AGO: Young Organists. To honor this commitment, a brunch was held on Saturday morning for John and his students—some traveling from as far as China and Taiwan to attend the weekend’s celebration.
In a toast to his teacher, Dr. Russell Weissmann described John Walker as, “an institution.” When asked why he played a piece a certain way, Russ simply responded, “because that’s the way John Walker plays it.” Weissmann also noted that the greatest compliment he has ever been paid was being told “you play like John Walker.” Audiences will remember John’s passionate and virtuosic performances and the Guild will continue to benefit from his work through decades of service. However, those of us lucky enough to be his students will carry his profound influence on our playing—and more importantly on our hearts— with us through the rest of our profession. John Walker is an American institution and the quintessential recipient of the Guild’s highest honor.