Geraldine Walther Joins Colburn as Interim Director of Chamber Music

Geraldine Walther

Geraldine Walther, former Takács Quartet violist, discusses her new role as Interim Director of Chamber Music.

This fall, violist Geraldine Walther joined the Colburn faculty as Interim Director of Chamber Music for the Conservatory. She oversees strings and piano chamber music, and she was also featured in October on the Colburn Chamber Music Society series. We sat down with Geraldine to discuss the Colburn Chamber Music Society concert, her work at Colburn, and how her career is helping her work with Conservatory students.

This interview has been lightly edited for style, length, and clarity.

How has it been going at Colburn so far?
Oh, it’s just been great. This last week has been especially great working with the [ten students on the Colburn Chamber Music Society concert]. They’re practically not students anymore, because they are such mature young adults and musicians. But we are all life-long students.

There was a wonderful back and forth. Sometimes I would insist on some things or point out things, but lots of times I was listening to their suggestions and their ideas on how to play a certain phrase. And that is what it is all about: getting everybody thinking and contributing and trying people’s ideas. It makes us all feel ownership if everyone can contribute and we are not just doing something that somebody is telling us. And it makes it much more gratifying if you are all invested in the same way. So, they were all wonderful.

Tell us about the program for your Colburn Chamber Music Society concert.
We did the Debussy Sonata for Flute, Harp, and Viola. And I had the pleasure of working with Anya [Garipoli, Harp] and Austin [Brown, Flute]. They were so aware of each part and very astute and demanding. We were real colleagues, but I felt that way about each group. Austin said it was his first time playing it, but I would not have known because it sounded to me as if he had played it 20 previous times. I have played that piece a few times in my life, and this was a fun performance because when you are playing with someone who has not played the piece a lot, you look at it with their new eyes and new ears, and I enjoy that experience.

And then we played the Amy Beach Piano Quintet, which she wrote in 1907. She was a wonderful pianist and an entirely American trained composer, and she wrote the first symphony ever published by an American woman, “The Gaelic.” The Piano Quintet is a real homage to Brahms, but also very uniquely Mrs. Beach. She composed quite a bit of chamber music, which we all should try to investigate. This is a wonderful piece, and it is deeply passionate. She admired Brahms, so she refers to the Brahms Piano Quintet quite a bit.

I only learned this piece in the last few years, and I am so glad that I did. It’s wonderful that women composers are getting exposure now, because there are some very imaginative and original pieces written by women that really deserve to be heard, performed, and enjoyed. We had an all-ladies group, and they were fantastic: Tiffany [Kang, Violin I], Yu Kai [Sun, Violin II], Emma [Lee, Cello], and HyeJin [Park, Piano].

After intermission, we played the Mozart G Minor Viola Quintet with entirely new personnel: Julia [Angelov, Violin I], Hanna [Zhdan, Violin II], Abby [Smith, Viola I], Yejin [Hong, Cello]. We had a wonderful time working on that too. It is one of the greatest works of chamber music that exists, and again it was the first time out for some of our terrific musicians, so now they have this performance to refer to. Everyone in the group was thrilled to be involved, as I know I was.

It was a wonderful week for me because I got to meet and work with all the different young artists and their different temperaments and different personalities. I wish we could do it every week! Each and every one played superbly, and I was so pleased and proud to have been onstage with them all.

It is also a wonderful feeling to know that these musicians are the musicians of the future. They are just tremendous, just on the cusp of going out and being our new performing artists. You suggest something and right away; they just get it. They embrace it and run with it, which is so wonderful to experience as a teacher.

What is involved in your role as Interim Director of Chamber Music?
My job is to put together chamber groups. I have help from Chris Cho, who is the Interim Manager of Ensemble Activities. He is helping me put together the right personnel for groups and pieces. It is like a big puzzle at first. There are usually 13-15 groups that we organize, and we try to involve all the pianists because they want to learn the quintet literature for piano and strings. It is a backbone of chamber music for piano and strings, and they need to learn those works because they get programmed often. I am talking about the quintets of Brahms, Dvořák, Franck, and Schumann. They come up at every chamber music festival, so if you can learn them at school with a group, it is to one’s advantage. And so, we want to provide that opportunity.

I also get a lot of help from the other faculty: from Martin Beaver, Paul Coletti, Clive Greensmith, and Fabio Bidini. They each help us at every step in which pieces should be played and with whom. But I have to say this first time putting things together was hard, because I had never done it before. I have taught, of course, chamber music. I was in the Takács Quartet, and I taught viola and chamber music for 15 years at the University of Colorado. But I had not organized it. And until you do that, you don’t really have the experience. I think it will be a whole lot easier this next time. I know I will get great support from the other faculty.

I also coach chamber groups. I had around 10, and the other teachers—Mr. Beaver, Mr. Greensmith, Mr. Coletti—had two or three, besides their full studio classes, which was great for me, because I needed some help. I coached my groups, and I tried to get them to play for the other wonderful faculty who would have different ears to gain the experience of playing for other people, as well as their insight. I sent many groups with piano to Mr. Bidini, I am afraid!

How has your previous experience performing and teaching helped in this role?
Every way. Especially having been in the Takács Quartet for 15 years. I don’t think I would be as valuable a teacher without that experience. And then the orchestral playing I’ve done and the solo playing I have done just adds to one’s vocabulary. I remember John [Fawcett] and Rachel [Call], who were working on the Prokofiev Sonata for Two Violins, definitely were thinking of orchestral and emotional colors in their brilliant playing on the Showcase Concert last week. One gains so much from orchestral experience.

I certainly never regret having been in the San Francisco Symphony. Orchestral repertoire is great, and if you are lucky enough to get one of those jobs, enjoy it. I never ever thought that was any less of a career than being a soloist or chamber musician. It is simply different, and you can do them all. I hope the students at Colburn can do them all and enjoy putting together their special careers in music.

How do you see the role of chamber music in students’ education?
They learn to listen, and that is the most important skill of all. Learning to listen to others besides yourself and relating to it. Then you can be very flexible, and you can change what you are doing. If someone else takes time or sings in a different color or dynamic, then you adjust too, because you are listening, responding, and reacting. And if you become more sensitive and aware, that is just going to serve you whether you are in an orchestra or in chamber music.

I always thought of orchestra as big chamber music, frankly, I really did. I thought this was just big chamber music, and you want to play with the cellists here, and the violins here. And even if you are playing a concerto, as soloist, there are times when you are accompanying the orchestra, and you should know that so you can play in a different way.

Is it true that you are the first ever Primrose Competition winner?
Yes, that was a long time ago. It was 1979, in Snowbird, Utah, and Mr. Primrose was there. That really helped me a lot and gave me a lot of confidence. I really appreciated the opportunity, and it was just a wonderful experience. It is terrific that the Competition is coming to Colburn in December. We have some talented players in this class of violas that I hope will compete.

What is the significance of the Primrose Competition for violists?
It was the very first one when I competed and won, so there are many more opportunities now. It has become much more renowned and accepted as one of the big competitions for violists. You get opportunities, and that is always good. You receive chances to play with other people and just to grow and get better.

The Primrose Competition is coming up in December, and then there’s another round of Chamber Forum in the spring.
Yes, Chamber Forum is in the spring. We have two chunks of time where everything gets intense, and we put all the groups together again. I hope we finish some of these pieces we have begun this semester, because I would love to hear the whole works played. We had some fabulous sounding groups who really worked well together and seemed to really enjoy themselves. And I would like to get more input from the students who are going to be playing. The more everybody thinks about what they want to play and with whom, the better.

Are you just at Colburn for this year?
I’m just here for a year, and it’s been great. I came out of retirement to do this, and yes, I am having a wonderful time. It is a tremendous experience for me.