Matt Walker

Hometown: Huntington, N.Y.
Member of the Nashville Symphony since 1999

What inspired you to become a musician?
My Dad was a jazz drummer back in the ’40s and ’50s. Although he didn’t do that as a profession, he always had that influence, and his record collection had a lot of great old jazz. My Mom loved classical music and encouraged me to study music. She said, “Hey, you’re playing the cello.” I was about 7 years old at the time, and I didn’t know what a cello was. I said, “All right, cool. It sort of looks like a guitar.”

How did you end up focusing on classical music as a career?

I played the guitar and got pretty serious about the bass at one point, and I played bass for jazz bands in high school. I didn’t decide to focus on music until I went to college, where I was trying to be an English major. I didn’t do so well in my English classes because I was playing all the time, so I got smart and decided to quit one potentially aimless profession to go into another potentially aimless profession. I figured, if I’m playing all the time, I might as well get a degree and study it for real. From there, I got into the orchestra world, which, aside from teaching, was a realistic way to make a living as a classical musician.

Aside from your parents, who has shaped how you think about music?
Some of my earliest exposure to music was my older brother’s record collection, which included a lot of Beatles. My favorite Beatle was producer George Martin, who added a complex classical component to what they did. And as a cellist, I couldn’t not be influenced by Yo-Yo Ma. He’s probably the best cellist in the world in the last 40 years, and, more importantly in my view, he plays all these other kinds of music. He has influenced a lot of musicians in that way — there are a lot more non-classical cellists than there used to be. His worldview contributes to him being a great musician.

What are some of your musical activities outside of the Nashville Symphony?
I am a founding member of Alias Chamber Ensemble, which was begun in 2002 by Nashville Symphony musicians who wanted to perform in smaller ensembles and work more independently. That’s an incredible outlet for expanding ourselves musically, and it has an impact on our playing in the orchestra too. The more chamber music you play, the more you get used to listening to the people around you — not just the sound they’re making, but their breathing and gestures, which are so important. That makes it easier to play in the orchestra and keeps us attuned to what’s happening in the ensemble.

I came to Nashville thinking that I’d do this symphony thing on the side — at the time, it was a well-regarded orchestra position, but it wasn’t nearly the huge job it is now. I was going to get into the session world playing bluegrass, country and roots music, and I was also something of a closet singer-songwriter. Three forces influenced me away from that: the Symphony got a lot busier; the development of Alias Chamber Ensemble; and meeting my wife, violinist Zeneba Bowers, who is also in the orchestra and has been an incredible influence on me, musically and in all other ways.

You and Zeneba have collaborated on other projects as well.
Because we haven’t been busy enough, we’ve started a travel business, Little Roads Europe. It’s a consultation service for travelers who want to have a more authentic, immersive experience in Europe, and we’ve written two guides to different parts of Italy. We’re going to follow those up with a travel guide to Ireland.

When you have such a demanding career in the Symphony, how do you manage all these other activities?
The Symphony is doing a lot more concerts than we used to even 10 years ago, so it requires a high degree of advance planning to carve out free time, whether to do chamber music or just rest from the orchestra job. It’s a logistical Jenga puzzle. You have to replace, shift and move things around without everything crumbling to the floor. I’m not particularly good at that, but luckily, my wife is extremely good at it.

What’s it like working with your spouse every day?
Being married to a musician — not just one who’s in the same field, but in the same actual job — is very interesting, and 99% of that is positive. Musicians have weird schedules, so the fact that we work the same hours is a huge advantage to our life partnership. We also have to have a fanatical devotion to our art, and that’s something a lot of non-musicians don’t really understand. So we are understanding of each other’s motivations, job-wise and art-wise. As artistic director and founder of Alias Chamber Ensemble, Zeneba is the prime source of energy that goes into Alias. So our collaborations on concert programs and other projects are kind of our progeny, our children. We don’t have kids, but these are what we put our energy and efforts into.

What’s your proudest musical moment?
A couple of years ago, I got to write a cello duet, which my friend Joe Johnson, principal cellist for the Toronto Symphony, played with Yo-Yo Ma. The following year, Yo-Yo Ma came to perform with the Nashville Symphony, and through a lot of finagling, I managed to play that same duet onstage with him as an encore. Seeing that he is the role model for every living cellist, I sometimes wonder if I should have quit altogether right then, because what am I going to do that’s going to top that?

Were you nervous, or did it feel totally natural?
It was my music, and I know it very well. I’ve played it many times myself, so I was just really excited. He brought things out of my playing that I was wasn’t ready for, even though he had seen the music only an hour ahead of time for the 10 minutes that we practiced it. It was a really fantastic experience.

What was the first record you ever owned?
Probably one of the Beatles’ albums — I think Abbey Road was the first one to show up in my collection. I also purloined a lot of records from my older brother, so that’s not the first record that I might have owned, but I remember being very excited to bring it home.

What was your first live music experience?
I don’t remember a specific concert, but I was very fortunate to have grown up in a school district that heavily funded its music programs, so I would have heard my local high school orchestra when I was in grade school. I also remember going to hear Dave Brubeck and his band with my folks in one of the local parks. Watching my dad watch them play was really fantastic, because he had this way of closing his eyes and grooving to what he was hearing and feeling. Just watching him respond to that music was very profound, because it showed me that music could be pretty impactful.

Do you enjoy listening to music in your spare time?
I actually relish silence. I very rarely listen to classical music, unless it’s for study or preparation, or I’m looking for new chamber repertoire to play. If I’m going to the record shelf, it’s going to be some old classic rock or blues or jazz.

Why does classical music matter?
If we look back centuries or even millennia, human history has been shaped by a couple of different markers. One of them is war: who conquered whom, and when. The other is the development of science and the arts, which are of the utmost importance to who we are as a society. The arts aren’t just a thing to look at and listen to, they also keep us alive and give us some kind of purpose other than propagating our genes.

And if you’re talking about musical art, time has filtered out what’s good and what’s not good. So we now have the benefit of hindsight to look back 200 or 300 years ago and learn why Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven have lasted, and why other music hasn’t. And the stuff that was great then is the basis for what we are doing now. We’ll have to wait another 100 years to determine whether the things we are doing now are great or not — but we need to know what was great back then to choose what to focus on now.