Life in the Boulder Phil

BOULDER – It’s 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra concertmaster Gregory Walker is starting his day by consulting with his son, 2-year-old Dashiel.

“Is this the video you want?” he asks, and gets an enthusiastic response.

“He’s allowed one Thomas the Tank Engine DVD a day,” Walker explains, as his son becomes absorbed in the animated adventures of the train engine.

For Walker and his wife, Lori, also a violinist in the Boulder Philharmonic, mornings belong, whenever possible, to their children.

“Musicians have that benefit because our day starts late,´ said Walker, whose musical day usually extends to 11:30 at night, including weekends. Another budding musician in the Walker family, 6-year-old Grayson, plans – rather reluctantly – for his piano lesson later on in the week, his father admits.

“I can relate to his reluctance because I had no choice,” Walker said. “My family has always been professional musicians, and it didn’t make sense to me, either. If I hadn’t found an old violin in the attic and snuck it down and hidden it under my bed, I would never have gotten out of piano lessons.”

Walker’s father is Pulitzer-Prize winning composer George Walker. Today, Gregory Walker performs and records his father’s music, as well as his own.

In the roles of composer, violinist and concertmaster, Walker has been a mainstay of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra since 1987.

Founded in 1958, the Boulder Philharmonic is currently made up of 75 contracted players. As a regional orchestra, their concert season, which runs from September through May, is limited to around 13 performances a year – which, in musician’s language, means “don’t give up your day job.”

According to Sue Levine, executive director of the Boulder Philharmonic, around 75 percent of the orchestra’s musicians have teaching and other performing jobs as well. 

“The salaries in the music world are not as high as we would like them to be, so this way our members can pursue their love of music and make a living,´ said Levine, who herself was formerly a violinist with the orchestra.

For Wendy LaTouche, who plays both bassoon and contrabassoon with the Boulder Philharmonic, these additional performing and teaching jobs compel her to reserve a seat on a plane several times a week. Fortunately for LaTouche, her day job as a gate agent with SkyWest out of Denver International Airport entitles her to free flights, which come in handy for the Boulder resident.

In addition to being a contract player with Boulder, LaTouche also is under contract with the Fresno Philharmonic, and freelances with several other orchestras. 

“I would get bored playing with one orchestra full time,” she admitted. “I couldn’t travel the way I do now. This way, I get to pick my own schedule.”

In addition to her jet-hopping performance schedule, LaTouche teaches world music at Columbine High School, and will begin this summer to make monthly trips to Europe to pursue her thesis – with one music doctorate already under her belt.

LaTouche and Walker are typical of many of today’s regional orchestra musicians, who combine teaching and performing careers at a dizzying pace in order to make a living at doing what they love best.

As a musician, Walker believes you have to expand your repertoire in order to survive in today’s world of eclectic interests. Trained as a concert violinist in the classical tradition, he decided at an early age not to compete with his illustrious father’s own career.

“I had the sensation of being in the shadow of what he had done,” Walker explained.  “It made me want to try to do different stuff.”

“Different stuff” included playing lead guitar in rock bands and giving the first solo synthesizer recital ever performed by a student at Indiana University.

“I have four degrees, and none of them are in violin,” Walker said. “There are so many great violin players out there, I saw no sense in putting all my eggs in one basket.”

With a doctorate in composition and a masters in computer music, Walker for many years has been an associate professor at the University of Colorado in Denver.  In addition to violin, he teaches courses as diverse as the history of rock and roll and performance art in experimental music – a diversity that well reflects his own varied musical career.

Composing, as well as practicing, is done in his studio at his home in Cold Creek Canyon. Walker’s recent works include “Silence of the Cells,” a work for cell phone and orchestra, and “The Passion According to St. Toscanini,” a surround-sound oratorio for quadraphonic chorus and orchestra, where the singers surround the audience.

In March, Walker and the Boulder Philharmonic will release their latest CD, “Electric Vivaldi” – a recording of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” arranged and performed by Walker on an electric violin.

Walker’s own classical music upbringing makes him sympathetic with today’s young musicians seeking an orchestral career.

“They come here with rigorous training from all over the world, and it’s almost impossible to make a living exclusively as a classical musician,” he said.

“But this was never any more than a business,” he added. “And as such, it’s subject to the principles and the vicissitudes of what other businesses are subject to. You’ve got to adapt – otherwise you’ll be wiped out.”

 Young musicians contemplating an orchestral career, Walker said, should ask themselves what their primary motivation is in trying to make a living in music. “If the answer is, ‘Well, otherwise I won’t be able to spend enough time doing it, and I love it too much,’ I would say take a walk outside and smell the roses,” he advised.

“Music is supposed to be an extension and reflection of life – it’s not supposed to be life, even though there are a number of musicians who have exemplified that,” he said.  “Your love and appreciation for music will not diminish if you have a little mix, a little balance.

“But,” he added, “for those who can’t let it go at that, then if they want a career in music and have a deep abiding love and need for it, then it will be self-fulfilling.” 

Auditions for the Boulder Philharmonic are held each August. Boulder, like most other orchestras, conceals the judging committee, made up of the music director and several orchestra members, behind a screen. Once a player is hired, they undergo a one-year probation period. After that, they’re a member of the orchestra for as long as they choose to remain, without having to go through the audition process again.

“It is extremely competitive,” Walker said. “This area has attracted some great musicians.  I’m on the other side of the screen, and I see their resumes. It’s pretty humbling.”

During a performance week, the orchestra rehearses Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday morning, with a Saturday night concert.  Rehearsals and performances are held at the Macky Auditorium at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Up until this year, the orchestra used to give two concerts during a performance week instead of one – a result of the economic cutbacks that have affected orchestras nationwide over the last several years. “Many orchestras are working to maintain a balance in these days of reduced subscription sales,” Levine said. 

For the Boulder Philharmonic, this balance includes finding the repertoire to satisfy longtime subscribers, as well as newcomers to the concert hall.

“It’s a difficult thing,” Levine admitted. “We do need to keep in touch with our core classical audience.” 

The Boulder Philharmonic’s conductor, Theodore Kuchar, addresses that need by programming a mix of both better-known and lesser-known works, Levine said.  But the organization hopes to follow in the footsteps of many other U.S.orchestras and add a series of pops concerts sometime in the near future. 

In early February the orchestra announced that Michael Butterman will replace Kuchar, who is leaving at the end of the season. 

“Michael wowed us throughout the time he spent in Boulder last October,” Levine said in a press release. Levine said Butterman would help guide the planned education and outreach programs that the orchestra hopes to begin offering to the community. Butterman is currently the associate conductor of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor for education and outreach of the Rochester Philharmonic.

In Boulder, Butterman will work with an orchestra made up of musicians from 10 different nationalities – musicians who, judging by LaTouche and Walker, are happy to have the opportunity to make at least a partial living, playing with guest artists the likes of  cellist Yo-Yo Ma and flutist James Galway. 

And for Gregory Walker, the experience is priceless.

“With my temperament I don’t think I could be happy in a full-time orchestra,” he said.  “But the Boulder Philharmonic has attracted some of the top soloists in the world, and these people are a huge inspiration for me.

“And our own players are high caliber,” he added. “We’re not just any regional orchestra.”