In Pursuit of Beauty
The East Bay's Rick Walker, creator of Festival del Sole, has a mission that transcends ego.
Photography by Michael Sugrue
On a bright, bracing spring morning, Rick Walker, dressed in slacks and a pale blue oxford shirt, admires the green hills from the porch of his Contra Costa home. “You can’t sit inside on a day like this,” he says, oblivious to the icy breeze and the goose bumps on his guest’s arms.
The moment captures a little of the essence of the 49-year-old Walker, who works officially as an entertainment attorney but who is really much more a bona fide lover of life. When asked to give a more definitive name to his career, he pauses thoughtfully. “I guess I’m a builder,” he says.
It’s a fairly accurate description. Walker collaborated on an idea for a music festival in Napa Valley and built it into the Festival del Sole—a star-studded extravaganza, with sister festivals in Cortona, Italy, and Singapore—that in just three years has become one of the hottest tickets on the global classical music circuit. He has taken groups like the Russian National Orchestra and made them international sensations. He has reinvented classic compositions such as Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf for a new audience by creating an updated arrangement starring Mikhail Gorbachev, Sophia Loren, and Bill Clinton—and won a Grammy for his effort.
“I want to call him an impresario, but an impresario is always putting himself out there, and that’s not Rick,” says Martha Bredon, a consultant who has helped Walker organize Festival del Sole for the past three years. “He never inserts his ego into the equation.”
Bredon says Walker stands out for his ability to coordinate projects so selflessly that it works to his advantage—a far cry from the hard-driving approach taken by a typical entertainment lawyer. “If you can get your ego out of the process, you can remain open to all possibilities,” Bredon says. “Rick has this gift of being able to share his vision with people—I mean really share it—to realize amazing things.”
Bredon points to the first Festival del Sole in 2006 as an example of how much Walker can accomplish. He launched the project in eight months, warp speed compared to the years of planning typically required to produce music festivals of this caliber. The event includes concerts, gourmet meals, and art shows held at various elegant venues throughout the Napa Valley. “People, including myself, were advising him to hold off a year, allowing time to book the artists, but Rick never stopped,” she says. “He never thought it was impossible, and obviously, it wasn’t.”
The key was partnering with Barrett Wissman, chairman of the talent agency IMG Artists, who could provide world-class talent on short notice. Walker had never worked with Wissman before but knew the venture capitalist had been looking for venues after the success of his Tuscan Sun Festival in Cortona, Italy. With the artists locked in—and big backers such as Gordon Getty and Robert and Margrit Mondavi—Walker could start the daunting task of building community support among Napa constituents, from the visitors bureau to the arts council to the vintners association, who had seen other music festivals try and fail. In the end, Festival del Sole was a smashing success, garnering rave reviews and scoring the first-ever live webcast from NPR’s popular classical radio program Performance Today. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the San Francisco Chronicle gave Wissman top credit, saying the Napa festival was his “brainchild.”
The budget for Festival del Sole now approaches $4 million, and the event draws 10,000 people annually. The weeklong festival, scheduled this year for July 12 through 20, celebrates “the art of living,” as Walker puts it, by bringing together some of the best musicians, visual artists, and chefs in the world. Various vintners host the lunches, dinners, receptions, and performances, informally competing against each other to create the most exquisite experience. Grammy Award–winning violinist Joshua Bell has shined in the festival’s picturesque settings and is slated to return this year, along with French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and 13-year-old piano prodigy Conrad Tao. Chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry plans to make a return appearance to prepare one of the lunches. In the visual arts, the festival will showcase collections of work by Henri Matisse and Andy Warhol.
The various art forms—music, cuisine, winemaking, visual arts—and the pastoral Napa Valley landscape enhance one another, Walker says, producing an elixir more powerful than the individual ingredients. Like so many of Walker’s projects, the endeavor underscores his core philosophy of carpe diem. “We have one chance to live this life right,” he says. “Make it count.”
Growing up in Sunnyvale when the Santa Clara Valley was still filled with orchards, Walker says he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He studied economics at UC Davis, where he met his wife, Karen, before attending law school at UC Berkeley. Karen can still recall her husband’s low-key, impish sense of humor when they were students—the way he would replace the jackets on his textbooks, for example, so that he would appear to be absorbed in a book on training elephants while reading economic theory.
After law school, Walker moved to Los Angeles and launched a legal practice representing pop music bands such as Van Halen and Crowded House. He says he liked the work but was frustrated by the temporal quality of the industry and the fickle tastes of the listening public. With classical music, in contrast, “you’re building something of permanence,” he says.
His life changed in 1991 when a law school friend asked if Walker would be willing to spend a few hours doing pro bono work for the Russian National Orchestra, a nascent group independent of the government that had sprung up in newly free Russia. The musicians needed legal representation, having accepted an invitation by Virgin Records to record a concert of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6 in London.
Everyone was feeling warm and fuzzy about the Soviets in the wake of glasnost, so I agreed, thinking I would put in about six hours,” Walker says. “Well, those six hours became about 6 million.”
The concert in London gained world renown as the definitive recording of the Tchaikovsky work, and the 105-member Russian National Orchestra would become one of the most revered classical music groups in the world—with Walker as its world manager and general counsel.
The orchestra has ridden the ups and downs of the country’s tumultuous politics, through the imprisonment and subsequent release of Mikhail Gorbachev, who has long sat on its board of directors, and beyond the economic meltdown of 1998, to the country’s more recent stability and cool relationship with the United States. The shifting tides of politics, however, have had little effect on the successful group.
“Music is not below but above the political radar, ” Walker says. “When an orchestra touches an audience, they bridge understanding.”
Though Walker’s connection to Russia stretches no further than his love of the literature—no family ties, no grasp of the language—he has become a surrogate parent for the orchestra, serving the group in countless ways, from advising it on its name to booking its tours, and even occasionally fetching reeds for the clarinetist. The orchestra, in turn, has served as a springboard for Walker’s broadening creative career. He compares the group to a prism, refracting beams of new, exciting projects in every direction.
One such direction was Wolf Tracks, conceived by Walker as a contemporary reinterpretation of the classic tale Peter and the Wolf. This version, rather than placing the wolf in a zoo, sets the wolf free—a symbol of a growing social and ecological consciousness. Gorbachev introduces both the traditional version and the sequel on the recording, each played by the Russian National Orchestra, the first narrated by Sophia Loren, the second by Bill Clinton. The recording has been translated into Spanish, with Antonio Banderas as the narrator, as well as Russian and, most recently, Mandarin. In 2004, the album won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for Children.
For all the glittering names in his life, Walker is remarkably elf-deprecating and unpretentious. “You have to be a pretty good co-conspirator,” he says. “Art is about our search for truth, about expressing universal ideas, and it is larger than any person. I see my role as facilitating creativity—to provide opportunity, guidance where needed, and space for artists to express themselves. And then to get out of the way.”
He notes the example of his longtime colleague Kent Nagano, music director of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, with whom he collaborated on the Wolf Tracks project and, most recently, on a work to be performed in August in Santa Monica called “American Voices.” The concert will feature the music of Charles Ives played as a backdrop to dramatic readings of the words of the nation’s founders.
“Kent does a lot of institutional work with the various orchestras he represents,” Walker says. “But, with some projects, maybe he thinks I’m the only one crazy enough to do it. I help people push the envelope a little. Artists are sometimes afraid to take the necessary steps.”
Nagano agrees, bragging about the music attorney who won’t brag about himself. “Rick gains free access to the rarefied world of the artists who trust his absolute integrity enough to expose their fragile world of moody creative resources,” Nagano says. “It is this integrity, so rare today, which sets him apart as an anomaly within the oft coarse and cynical world of the commercial arts. Whereas many can see and judge a product as good, it would be this integrity that also provides him an eye, an awareness of, and an appreciation for superior quality—for the exceptional.”
Back with his guest on the porch, Walker again turns his eyes to the green hills laced with dirt trails where he and his three sons pursue mountain bike adventures. “I don’t believe in settling,” he says, referring to the odd route of his career. “I have never taken the easy way, which might have been more lucrative. I get my kicks by seeing things work. It’s like the pride a builder must feel upon seeing a structure go up. It’s not the builder, it’s the edifice that counts.”
Matt Isaacs is a freelance writer based in the East Bay.
Festival del Sole
What: A celebration of music, food, wine, and art.
When: July 12–20, 2008.
Where: Wineries, estates, a theater, a museum, and even a castle in Napa Valley.
Highlights: Gala dinners at Far Niente winery, Dominus Estate, and Calistoga Ranch; violinist Joshua Bell at the Castello di Amorosa; Persian classical folk music at Darioush Winery; Thomas Keller luncheon at Villa Mille Rose; pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky at the Lincoln Theater.
Hot Tickets: Concert seating $45–$125; gala events are open only to festival patrons and pass holders. Passes are available through the purchase of festival packages, $600–$900 a day per person. Visit www.fdsnapa.org, or call (888) 337-6272.