Alex picks up symphony orchestra baton

Elaine Maslin A new era is in store for the Norfolk Symphony Orchestra, as its current director James Stobart prepares to hand over the reins to a new pair of hands. ELAINE MASLIN talks to the orchestra’s new director, Alex Walker.

Elaine Maslin

The arrival of Alex Walker as the new director of one of the country's best amateur orchestras will mark a significant change, but perhaps not as much as you might expect.

He cuts an impressive figure, aged 34 and having had considerable international experience on the conducting circuit and having trained in Russia.

He takes over the Norfolk Symphony Orchestra (NSO) later this year from James Stobart, who came out of retirement some 13 years ago to lead the west Norfolk-based amateur orchestra.

In Mr Stobart's hands it has not only become a thoroughly professional outfit, but also hugely popular, performing almost always to full houses.

And so Mr Walker will inherit both a committed orchestra and band of helpers who sell tickets, run the NSO friends and help run the outfit.

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But while he is a younger hand than Mr Stobart, Mr Walker is stepping into his shoes in more ways than one.

The pair have both been regular conductors of the Henley Symphony Orchestra and both have a soft spot for Shostakovich.

Mr Walker's first full concert with the orchestra is due in November and is to feature Glinka, Mozart and Shostakovich. And he is very much looking forward to taking to the podium for the performance after learning more about the orchestra he has taken on.

“The level of the playing is very high, the level of organisation is exceptional and the level of support is very good too,” he said.

“Jim has given it all his time over the last 12 years. He got it on a sound financial footing and got a lot of people interested in what he is doing in terms of support.

“And he has had a sound way of organising programming, introduced a certain amount of discipline to rehearsals and he's made sure only people who really want to be in it have joined.” Mr Walker studied at the University of Bristol and went on to the Guildhall.

He then spent three years studying under Ilya Musin at the St Petersburg State Conservatoire, where he lived and also learned to speak Russian.

For the past eight years he has been working as a conductor around the world, conducting in Russia, Finland, Denmark and Eastern Europe.

Closer to home he has done a lot of work for the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden.

It all started with a double bass, he says.

“When I was young I was a double bass player in the national youth orchestra. But I wanted to conduct from the age of about 15 or 16,” he said.

“I used to pester my youth orchestra conductor until he let me conduct.”

He added: “I'm absolutely passionate about music.

“I listen to lots of different things, I enjoy listening to jazz for relaxation.

“But I'm passionate about most music while I am conducting it, from Mozart's operas to middle European work and Russian composers, mainly from the 19th and 20th century.

“There is a certain tradition of string playing that Russians have.

“I like Glinka, Life of a Tsar, and the start of Russian music.” Although he lives in High Wycombe, he is looking forward to spending time in west Norfolk with the orchestra and getting to know the area.

“I love the town of King's Lynn, particularly the Tuesday Market Place, it is beautiful,” he said.

“It is an area I'm really interested in getting to know better.”

And what does he have planned for the orchestra? “I'm almost there with next year's programme,” he said. “It is a mixture starting with Shostakovich's Symphony No:8.

“We will be doing Gershwin's American in Paris and West Side Story.

“I'm interested in doing repertory which challenges and excites the orchestra and also attracts the audience and stimulates them to want to hear work which they are not already familiar with.”

t The orchestra's next concert in Norfolk is on Sunday, May 18 at 3.30pm at the Corn Exchange, King's Lynn. The programme includes work by Ravel and Strauss. Soprano Louise Cannon and organist John Lyon feature. For tickets or more information, go to www.nso-uk.co.uk or call 01953 717605.