Gwyneth Walker

Vermont Composers' Works Premiere at Chandler Music Hall

by Tom Hill,The Valley News, White River Junction, Vermont
Published 5/03

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Read notes for Climbing to Heaven (2002) for readers, actors, and chamber orchestra

During a spasm of involvement in community theater long ago, I was approached backstage after a performance (the show was Oklahoma! and I played evil Jud Frye) by a Lady From Away.

She was from Massachusetts, and she wanted us to know how much she had enjoyed the show.

“I'm so amazed,” she burbled, trying to pay a compliment, “that you even have theater up here!”

Yes, ma'am; we do. We also have paved streets, pizza and satellite TV.

And on Sunday, June 1, at a small but stately performance hall (in a village that many People From Away drive past without seeing) we will have the world premieres of ambitious works by three local composers. We will have more than 70 singers, dancers, actors, musicians, and an audience of varied and sophisticated tastes.

Take that, Lady From Away.

“I think our community is very special in this regard,” says Gwyneth Walker of Braintree, whose Climbing to Heaven -- a work for instrumental ensemble, readers and dancers based on the writings of Thomas Merton -- will be one of the works introduced at Chandler Music Hall in Randolph. “There is immense support for the arts in town, and people of all walks of life come to these concerts.”

Erik Nielsen of Brookfield agrees.

“In many areas of the country, composers are anonymous figures, most of them presumed to be dead,” says Nielsen, whose Like the Clouds -- a setting of five poems by David Budbill of Wolcott, Vt. -- will be performed June 1 at 7:30 p.m. “In a small place like Vermont … people know the artists who live among them, whether they're poets, or writers, or weavers, or actors, or dancers or composers. It gives us a chance to interact with our audience in a very personal way that is unique.”

For Kathy Wonson Eddy of Braintree, the premiere of Vermont Rhapsody, to be performed by local soloists and members of the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra, represents a fusion of chance and challenge. “We took it as an opportunity to stretch and do something we wouldn't ordinarily do,” she says.

A graduate of Brown University and the Hartt School of Music, and a former faculty member at Oberlin College Conservatory, Walker left the academic world in 1982 to pursue a full-time career as a composer. She has written more than 170 published works.

Favoring music with a “theatrical bent” to it, Walker turned to Randolph Union High School drama and English teacher Charlie McMeekin. “Whenever I've had theatrical elements in my choral music, he's been one of the most enthusiastic presenters,” she says. “So I thought, ‘Why don’t I use this resource, our theater people in town?’ ”

For her text, to be accompanied by members of the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra, Walker chose Merton's translations of works by the Desert Fathers, an order of fourth-century monks. “I could imagine somebody reading them, and somebody acting them out,” she says. “The music gives you the interpretation, the message.”

Walker expected a learning experience, and that's what she got.

“Actors don't rehearse the same way an orchestra does,” she observes. “They have their own ideas about what to do. With an orchestra, you hand out the parts and the conductor has a baton, and you're expected to play what's on the page. A theater group doesn’t do that at all; they’ve got their ideas of what they think it might be, and I had to learn to observe.”

A longtime Brookfield resident whose work often reflects social issues, Nielsen visited Vermont from Connecticut with his family -- wife Barbara and daughters Cora, Kristina and Ingrid -- 16 years ago, and never left. He collaborated with Budbill in adapting the writer's play, Judevine, into a full-length opera, A Fleeting Animal, and has worked with Bread and Puppet Theater, the Manchester Chamber Players, Sounding Joy! and the Vermont Symphony Orchestra.

“My first thought was to have a group of community choristers paired with a group of high-school instrumentalists,” Nielsen explains. “I thought it was also a really good way to get two groups together who would not ordinarily perform together, but resided within the same community.”

Musicians performing Like the Clouds will be directed by Randolph Union High School music director Josh Stumpff. Randolph Singers director Larry Hamberlin will conduct the vocal ensemble. “It's not often that I'm going to find an ensemble consisting of oboe, three saxophones, trumpet, trombone, viola, piano and drum set,” Nielsen says with a laugh.

Balancing her creative side with full-time duties as pastor of the United Church of Christ, Eddy has written more than 200 works that have been performed nationwide and abroad. Many mark festival occasions and celebrate particular lives and events.

“What a privilege to have the opportunity to compose a symphonic work!” she says. “This has been a keen intellectual challenge and a delight. I am so grateful to have had 27 years of composing in a community that supports local composers with such commitment, vigor and generosity.”

Eddy's three-movement Vermont Rhapsody invokes the beauty of Riford Brook in Braintree and of Mount Mansfield, and the memory of close friend Lou Crane, a “creative, jubilant, funny person” who died last summer.

“The opening is like that side of him: lots of brass and timpani,” she says. The second part, “very peaceful and still,” reminds Eddy of watching Crane cross Lake Dunmore on his sailboat at sunset.

Eddy has collaborated on many projects with her husband, photographer Robert Eddy. Their oldest son, Nathan, attends Yale; their son Isaac, 24, performs with the avant-garde ensemble The Blue Man Group.

All three composers credit Chandler Center for the Arts President Janet Watton and Rebecca McMeekin, the center's director of program and fund development, for launching the project that began with the commissioning of the pieces in November 2001.

“They don't just want to have a chamber music concert and then our Christmas sing-along,” Walker says. “That's not enough for these people.”

Nielsen marvels at the enormity of it all: “It wasn't just one piece by one composer; it was three pieces by three composers. That's three times the headache, three times the hassle and three times the logistical details to work out.”

In a sense, Nielsen observes, the June 1 premiere will bring the relationship between artist and audience full circle. “It gets us back to where composers were hundreds of years ago in European music, and still are today in many traditional cultures: where they're part and parcel of the community, and work within the community,” he says. “I would love to see it emulated everywhere.”