by Richard Duckett, The Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Massachusetts
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Read notes for The Road to Freedom (2003) for SATB chorus and piano
Vermont composer Gwyneth Walker, who has written more than 130 commissioned works for orchestras, bands, choruses and chamber ensembles, once received a request from Gov. Madeleine M. Kunin.
Kunin wanted to play Walker's music at her Jan. 3, 1989, inauguration. Walker was happy to say permission granted, and her "Raise the Roof!" for brass quintet was duly featured.
Is Walker wondering whether a similar sort of inquiry might be on the way from Howard Dean come January 2005, concerning a certain inaugural in Washington, D.C.?
After all, Walker was the recipient of the 2000 "Lifetime Achievement Award" from the Vermont Arts Council. Dr. Dean is another former governor of Vermont - and now a front-running Democratic party candidate for the U.S. presidency.
Walker laughed good-naturedly at the question. "If he got to be president he might remember me. He certainly knows who I am," she said. "Maybe there'll be a chance." Worcester concert-goers and lovers of chorus music also are likely to be familiar with Walker's music. Choirs and community groups in the area have performed her works, which range from the humorous to the sacred. In 1999, three Walker works were featured when the Worcester Chorus, the Westboro High School Concert Choir and Madrigal Singers, and the Worcester Symphony Strings joined forces for "A Choral Festival of Song," a concert sponsored by Music Worcester Inc.
Saturday at 7:30 p.m. will see the world premiere of Walker's "Road to Freedom" in a concert presented by the Salisbury Singers in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Assumption College, Worcester. The concert is titled "Celebration of Freedom" and showcases works based on peace, freedom and world harmony. Other pieces to be performed include "The Star Spangled Banner," "Let There be Peace on Earth," "America the Beautiful" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
"Road to Freedom" was specially commissioned by the Salisbury Singers to celebrate the 80-member singing group's 30th anniversary season.
Walker said that Michelle Graveline, music director of the Salisbury Singers, had told her that they wanted to do a concert based on the theme of freedom. "So I tried to think of something," she said.
Walker remembered an African-American song, "Follow the Drinking Gourd." The song dates to the pre-Civil War "Underground Railroad." By heading toward the Big Dipper (the "Drinking Gourd"), fugitives were heading north toward freedom. Walker said that these days she never hears the song at concerts. Her adaptation may change that.
Her choral composition highlights and expands on the characteristics of the original. The chorus performs footsteps and hand-claps for joy during the refrain. Near the end of the song, new verses are added to express the excitement of people heading toward freedom:
I can see the light in the Northern sky.
My steps are weary, but my spirits are high!
The song is one of three world premieres of pieces by Walker to be performed over a span of a handful of weeks.
"I have a lot of things lined up for the future," she said during a telephone interview from the small village of Braintree, Vt., where she lives on a dairy farm.
She has planned her composition schedule meticulously, noting that "I have a detailed schedule into the year 2006, month by month."
Walker, 56, can pretty much remember the year and month when she first was smitten by music and started composing in her mind - at the age of 2.
"I was just a little kid in my crib and my sister started taking piano lessons, and I guess the crib was in a bedroom that was right over the living room because when she started playing the piano this feeling just shot right up through me," she said. "I didn't fall asleep the way I was supposed to. I leapt up in my crib because the sound of music is a physical thing as well an aural thing."
The next day "I remember crawling to the piano, climbing up and trying to duplicate the sounds I had heard the night before," Walker said. "And I stayed at the piano all the time."
By the time she was in the first grade, she said, "I could put some of the notes on a page and put my name next to it. My first pieces had about four notes, but my name was clearly up there."
It wasn't so much that Walker knew she wanted to be a composer. She already was a composer. Growing up in New Canaan, Conn., she composed various pieces for friends in elementary school, junior high school, high school and college at Brown University.
However, while studying for a doctorate in composition at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, she felt a certain expectation from her professors to be like them - teachers in academe.
"It never occurred to them that I wanted to write full time," Walker said.
She did land a teaching position at Oberlin College Conservatory in Ohio. However, 3½ years later she shocked her colleagues by resigning - so that she could indeed compose full time.
"There weren't enough hours in the day to teach and really write. ... I only told one colleague at first and he just couldn't understand. I think he might have been perhaps a little threatened or envious, because he wished he could do the same. I was just horrified of not living my life to the fullest."
A lover of Vermont since childhood holidays spent there, she discovered while working on a project in Braintree and nearby (and larger) Randolph that music and the arts are celebrated to the fullest there. "That is Vermont. We are very arts oriented here. ... Never a dull moment in Randolph, Vt."
The first piece she wrote after moving to Vermont helped secure Walker as a sought-after composer. Also a lover of tennis, she wrote "Match Point" for one of her new neighbors who, it turned out, was "the only person in the county who also plays tennis." He conducted the Randolph High School Band. As per the score, the conductor waved a tennis racquet rather than a baton as the band played "Match Point" during one of its performances.
Later, she formally orchestrated the piece and "sent it out" to be published.
"The next thing I knew, without me ever trying, was to land it in the lap of my childhood idol, Billie Jean King." King conducted the piece, with tennis racquet, at a concert at Lincoln Center in New York City. Walker subsequently found herself on television.
Furthermore, she caught the eye of musical publishing houses. In other words, as far as a composer was concerned, "Kaboom!" Walker said.
"It was not a great piece of music. I just did it for fun for the local band. So I owe it all to Billie Jean King."
Walker clearly has a great sense of humor, but she's very disciplined about her writing. With all the commissions, she said she has to be. "I am writing on deadline, on schedule, for a group who are waiting for the music. So that certainly gets you heading toward your desk quickly."
By the same token, "I really do like to write," she added. If she has to devote so much time to other matters that she doesn't get to write on a given day "I'm in a foul mood. ... I'm all wound up because I haven't had the music take my energy in a productive way. So by the next day I'm really ready to go."
Asked if there is a central theme to her music, Walker said "I think most people think it's a fairly positive view of life, energetic.
"Some of my music is sacred (Walker is a Quaker) so it's reverent, some of it is humorous like the tennis piece, and some of the work is somewhat theatrical. So it's very much a human being has written this music for human beings to perform for human beings in the audience."