In June 2011, Marcel Walker attended a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert conducted by John Williams. He was enveloped by a sound that represented his own childhood and artistic journey, conducted by a personal hero.
It was the accessibility of the orchestral sound of John Williams that drew Walker, comic book artist and winner of the 2016 Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh Grant and the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council’s Artist Opportunity Grant, to the orchestra. The concert Walker attended was part of the Pittsburgh Symphony’s PNC Pops series, which includes seven concert weekends of popular music each year.
“I think one of the reasons why people can be a little resistant to listening to classical music is because they are not as familiar with it. But that particular program was made up of pieces that I was [familiar with], some of them very much so. So it was a treat to actually hear a full program of those pieces… performed live in person.”
In June 2016, Walker sat on the same Heinz Hall stage with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, illustrating Crescendo, a comic book hero he created for the patrons of The Pittsburgh Symphony’s second Sensory Friendly concert, while the orchestra played the “Superman Theme,” the very song that had led him to Heinz Hall 15 years prior. Walker became somewhat of a hero to the Pittsburgh Symphony community by offering an important voice in the envisioning of symphonic music for patrons of all ages, abilities, ethnicities and backgrounds.
Like many of the Pittsburgh Symphony’s patrons Walker is deeply connected to the power of live music. “Nothing compares to hearing that kind of music performed live and having the notes hit you, almost physically while you’re hearing it… It’s a physical force.”
He wanted this otherworldly, “metaphysical” experience to be available to everyone in the Pittsburgh community and made it a personal mission to communicate this to the management staff of the Pittsburgh Symphony. Part of this desire stemmed from being a minority in the audience, “It felt distinct, you know, you feel like you stand out and in a way it’s not necessarily good.” After a second meeting with the staff of the orchestra a relationship formed. Members of the staff noticed a comment that Walker posted on a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article about diversifying the audience and called him in for further conversation. From this meeting, Walker saw a willingness to “adapt to the needs of the community… to broaden its audience and broaden its appeal.” Walker also became more aware of what the orchestra was already offering and he made it a goal to become more active in promoting the orchestra to his own circles of friends. Most importantly, the conversation Walker had been wanting fo have had finally begun.
Fresh on the minds of the staff and present in the Pittsburgh visual arts community, Walker was asked to be the featured artist for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s second Sensory Friendly concert entitled Heroes and Inspirations. This offer included illustrating the poster art, being interviewed with the conductor during the concert and a live illustration to a piece of symphonic music. The music chosen for this particular show: John Williams’ “Superman Theme.”
“I gotta tell you,” Walker says candidly, “that particular piece of music is the defining piece of classical music in my life. I couldn’t begin to estimate how many times I’ve listened to that since I was a child… There was no way I couldn’t draw with the symphony while they were playing that piece. It just had to happen.”
As for the poster illustration that Walker created, it features a series of heroes as children and adults. These heroes include a doctor, policewoman and firefighter in addition to a musician and artist, showing kids that heroes come in all forms. The pack of heroes is led by Crescendo a superhero whose powers stem from and revolve around classical music. Walker keeps a Spotify playlist for Crescendo of classical music that accentuates her powers. He says that Crescendo reminds him of the synchronicity of art forms in his work, particularly illustration, music and film.
This experience also gave Walker an appreciation for the Pittsburgh Symphony’s sensory-friendly performances, one of the initiatives that had been developed since Walkers’ second meeting with the staff on diversity and inclusion. The symphony’s sensory friendly performances are offered to patrons of all ages and abilities, particularly designed for individuals on the autism spectrum, to experience a symphonic music in a relaxed environment. Walker comments that “one of the things that struck me was [that the concert] allowed an opportunity, not just for the kids, but for the families, to participate in [a] kind of program that they otherwise might not be able to.”
Walker feels strongly about exposing children to the arts. He loves to have groups of kids attend his art galleries and is inspired when he sees children at Pittsburgh Symphony concerts.
“I see the realm of possibility. That’s the main thing I see anytime that children are exposed to the arts, I like seeing when that flicker of possibility goes on: ‘this is the thing that I can do’ or ‘I can learn to do this’… I’ve been to many [Pittsburgh Symphony concerts] where I’ve seen kids really focused and intent… they’re feeling this music. It’s amazing to watch: to see that love and focus and attention that early on.”
Walker experienced that same flicker of possibility, the same feeling of empowerment and the same desire to be a hero when he read comic books as a child.
It is not surprising that Walker used the title of the sensory-friendly concert, Heroes and Inspirations, as the words that he best associates with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. “It was fortuitous that I would be asked to help at that event because it kind of describes a lot of my life,” Walker remarks, “and I think it’s totally apropos to say that in many aspects the members of the symphony and… the symphony as an organization are heroes and inspirations of the city of Pittsburgh. These are our champions of the arts.”
In fact, he puts their heroism on the same pedestal as Pittsburgh’s famous sports teams, “That’s how I want the city of Pittsburgh to regard [the orchestra]; it’s our fourth team.” He points out the similarities of the two, “It’s a group of people playing together towards an end goal for their fans. And like sports teams, they’re trying to orchestrate a win.”
Walker continues to keep in touch with the orchestra’s administrative staff, attending events and continuing the dialogue on diversification of audiences. As he’s seeing more and more progress in these efforts, he encourages that more of his “fellow Pittsburghers” open up to symphonic music using the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra as an accessible way into an art—an art that creates heroes of all its patrons.