The touring musician: Alexander Walker
It all happened rather by accident. I have spent much of the last 20 years, engaged in the most rewarding work conducting in Central and Eastern Europe. Britain is not an easy place to make a career as a conductor and returning home in 1999 after 3 years studying with the legendary Ilya Musin, at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, I lacked contacts on the British scene. I had already begun working with many of Russia’s greatest orchestras and my relationships with orchestras such as Musica Viva, and Symphony Orchestra Novaya Rossiya (with whom I am amongst other things recording a cycle of Havergal Brian Symphonies!) continues to this day.
Making the most of my contacts in Eastern Europe, I was soon establishing myself as a regular guest conductor with orchestras in Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania with some engagements in Western Europe in Finland and Denmark. As a young conductor, the way of working in these countries proved to be just the right environment to gain experience and do artistically satisfying work. Orchestras prepare one programme a week, with four or five rehearsals leading up to a concert. This makes it possible to work with the music in depth, getting to know the players in the orchestra to produce an interpretation that everybody believes in.
It was essential for me to bring these orchestras something that none of their other conductors were offering them. I made it my mission to bring repertoire with which they were unfamiliar, introducing British music where it was unfamiliar, but also exploring the lesser-known music I had discovered on my travels, for exampling bringing music by the Polish composer Karłowizc to audiences in Finland, or the symphonies of Carl Nielsen to Romania. This is where the alchemy of some of these projects lay. The orchestras had no preconceptions of how an unfamiliar work should be performed.
This year I was asked to conduct a concert with the orchestras wonderful chorus – an extraordinary ensemble of 80 fully-trained professional singers and Elgar’s great work seemed to be an obvious choice. The sound of the choir was tremendous and working the music over a period of a week every singer and orchestral player fell in love with this masterpiece they were performing for the first time.
Music can, of course, be transformative, and a great work can resonate in an extraordinary way when a serendipitous combination of place, people and point in time somehow come into alignment. One such experience was performing Britten’s War Requiem in the Polish City of Lublin on 1 September 2009, the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Poland. For the performance, two large choirs and choristers from All Saints Northampton came from the UK. In addition to the Polish orchestra and soloists, we had the privilege of many Polish veterans of the War attending the concert who had lived through the War in Poland and for our British choirs, the performance was a life-changing experience. Such an experience at a different moment or place in history would not have been possible – ten years many of the veterans would not be able to attend.
I have been incredibly lucky to have had the privilege of sharing so much with musicians all over Europe and the exchange of ideas produced by these collaborations has been extraordinary. I know my life and music-making have been enriched incredibly by collaborating with musicians from across Europe and I believe I bring something of what I have imbibed on the continent to my work in the UK. I am also in no doubt that without my visits, many musicians would not have been able to share in the riches of the music of Elgar, Britten, Walton, Nielsen and many others. With Brexit looming, of course, I can only hope that I will be able to continue to travel and work without hindrance. However, it is not just the livelihoods of musicians such as me that it is at risk. It would be a tragedy if the opportunity for so much exchange of ideas and sharing is reduced by a Brexit that creates barriers to such free and fertile collaborations.