Gwyneth Walker

Cross-Country Fall Colors Inspire VSO, New Composition

by Jim Lowe, The Times Argus, Barre-Montpelier, Vermont
Published 9/26/97

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Read notes for About Leaves (1997) for chamber orchestra

Vermont's fall foliage was the original motation for the Vermont Symphony Orchestra's "Made in Vermont" annual statewide tour. This year it also provided the inspiration for Vermont composer Gwyneth Walker's About Leaves, based on three Robert Frost poems, commissioned especially for the current VSO tour.

"It's very evocative, considering that the orchestra is quite small, very colorful, and it's clever fanciful," explained VSO Music Director Kate Tamarkin, who will conduct the work's premiere performances.

"I selected three poems that evoked in me completely different images," Walker added. "These three poems speak about foliage in three distinct ways -- ways that I could do something with musically that would have different energy and feelings associated with them."

About Leaves, being given its world premiere in two of the VSO's four "Made in Vermont" tour programs, will be performed at Bethany Church in Montpelier on Thursday, Oct. 2 at 8 p.m. The concert will be dedicated to the memory of longtime VSO violinist and Montpelier resident Louis Levy, who died earlier this year at the age of 92. ...

Walker's About Leaves: Three Portraits for Chamber Orchestra, commissioned by the VSO, was inspired by the three Robert Frost poems, "The Leaf Treader", "Gathering Leaves", and "Nothing Gold Can Stay."

"They provoked images, they created images immediately for me," Walker explained in a recent telephone interview from her Braintree home. "I went through the entire collection of Robert Frost poems that I brought with me on the airplane, and narrowed it to the ones about leaves that would be the foliage time."

Walker purposely chose three very different poems that each have distinct images. "Treading on Leaves" was inspired by the poem "The Leaf Treader."

"The treading on leaves idea is more stomping leaves, trying to get them out of the way or buried into the ground," she said. "I considered that energetic, and also a little bit humorous -- you're never going to win."

That is contrasted with "Light as Ballons," inspired by "Gathering Leaves." "No mater what, when you're trying to clear them away, the least little breeze does your work, and off they go. I thought that would be a wonderful distinct image," she said.

Walker has always loved the poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay", which proved the inspiration for "The Last Color." "To me, autumn and the foliage colors are sad at the end because I prefer the warmer wather and sunlight to the cold, and the vanishing of the leaves is to me the saddest time of the year," she said.

Before composing About Leaves, Walker had to consider the small size and instrumentation of the orchestra -- strings, plus one flute, two clarinets, and bassoon. "It's something that they are using for some other pieces," she said, "So, in this case, I'm the composer for hire, so I was told the orchestration, the instrumentation, before I started. I thought it was a bit weird -- but I went with it."

Walker immediately realted the two clarinets to the ballons. "I thought I would have the two clarinets chasing each other around. That immediately dictatedthe second piece," she said.

For Walker, this type of composition is about translating images into music. "There may be specific, literal words that have musical connotations, such as treading or tromping," she said. "To me, it's in 4/4 (time), very regular rhythm, always accenting the downbeat, and perhaps with a chord on the downbeat. That's just taking one thing."

One can also take the image created by the poem as a whole, as in "Light as Balloons." Everything in that poem is about leaves flying off into air," Walker said. "So the whole poem is off into the air, and I decided that that would be much better in a 6/8 and 9/8 (time) as they chase each other around."

"The Last Color", on the other hand, is the most introspective movement. "What would you do with music?" Walker asked. "We don't even have brass instruments, otherwise we could have the horns, but we have nothing of the color gold. I'm not dealing with the color gold. What I am saying is that nothing that is that beautiful is ever going to last indefinitely, and my reacation to that thought is sorrow, pain -- and beauty -- all mixed together," she said.

So Walker relied on the strings for this effect. "The sustained strings building chords that fall off. They just dissipate. A sort of poignant dissonance is sustained in the strings."