by Jim Lowe,The Times Argus, Barre-Montpelier, Vermont
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Read notes for Lessons from the Sea (2006) for SSAA chorus, narrator, and piano
When Bella Voce, the Burlington women's choir, commissioned Braintree composer Gwyneth Walker to write a piece of music for it, the group's members may not have known what they were getting into – but they should have.
"I don't know if this is exactly what Bella Voce had in mind when they were thinking of a cantata, but it's what I did," Walker said with a laugh. "It's sort of a staged reading with music, I'd say."
Bella Voce will premiere Walker's "Lessons from the Sea," based on Anne Morrow Lindbergh's "Gift from the Sea," with readings by Reeve Lindbergh on April 4 at 8 p.m. at Montpelier's Bethany Church; April 5 at 7 p.m. at St. Johnsbury's North Congregational Church; and April 6 at 3 p.m. at the United Methodist Church in Shelburne.
Also on the program, directed by Dawn Willis, are Walker's setting of the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem "Crossing the Bar," as well as several vocal and piano solos, also written by the Vermont composer.
Bella Voce, a 40-voice choir that emanated largely from the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus, was founded in 2004 by Willis, the VSO Chorus' associate conductor. Two programs are presented each season, often with multiple performances, plus special projects like this.
Willis had heard Walker's music before she met the composer at a choral concert in Portsmouth, N.H.
"I told her that we had a brand-new women's choir and we had already done a song of hers, "How Can We Keep from Singing?" and we were learning a second song," Willis said. "She was very enthusiastic."
It turned out that Walker was going to be in the Burlington area, so Bella Voce sang a few of her songs for her.
Walker, 61, is one of the few composers who makes her entire living writing music. With a doctorate in music from the Hartt School of Music, Walker was teaching at the Oberlin College Conservatory when she left academia to compose full time in 1982. Her catalog contains more than 170 commissioned works for orchestra, band, chorus and chamber ensembles. She has long been a major presence on the Vermont music scene and lives on a dairy farm outside Randolph.
"First of all, it has great breadth," Willis said of Walker's music. "So, you can experience various emotions, various styles of music and even various genres. That's the thing about this concert: We wanted to focus not only on this cantata, but also on some of her other repertoire, so there are vocal and piano solos that will be part of the first half."
When Bella Voce commissioned Walker, the idea was a new work by a female composer with lyrics by a Vermont poet.
"I thought it was a very good idea, but I couldn't think of any writer in Vermont who could write (singable) lyrics," Walker said. "In the meantime, I had become a friend of Reeve Lindbergh, up in St. Johnsbury, for reasons unrelated to Bella Voce." (Reeve is the daughter of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and the aviator Charles Lindbergh.)
"Reeve certainly knows every writer in Vermont," Walker said. "She suggested many, but none of them were singable lyrics. I got the idea to use (her mother's) book, "Gift from the Sea," which I knew so well, anyway. And the connection with Vermont is not only Reeve, but because Anne Morrow Lindbergh lived in Vermont for her final days."
There was, of course, the problem that "Gift from the Sea" was not poetry.
"I had already selected lines I liked for a song I had written called 'Gift of the Sea,'" Walker said. "So I decided to create a cantata that used those words as the basis."
Walker then took lines from the book that she felt were singable. She decided to frame the resulting choral music with readings from the book.
"Some of those readings would be sung," Walker said. "I have plenty of narrative, with Reeve or somebody else reading from the book, and the chorus brings those portions to life – so there are some entertainment passages."
For Walker, the book speaks to many women.
"It talks about how to balance all the demands on one's time, as wife, mother and, in Anne Morrow Lindbergh's case, a writer," Walker said.
And, in the usual Walker style, there's plenty of humor. For example, there is the commuter train in Connecticut, where the Lindberghs lived and Walker grew up.
"I decided to have the chorus become the train sound, ever faster, chugging in the background, as the housewife becomes more and more overwhelmed with everything she's committed herself to," Walker said.
There is another part that talks about relationships, two people in a healthy relationship.
"So I have dancers in positions that look like that," Walker said. "It's quite charming. One of the members of Bella Voce did some choreography that matches the excerpt."
For the chorus, Walker's new work is proving a challenge.
"I would say that 90 percent of it is written in four-part or eight-part divisi (divided), with sometimes two or three (singers) on a part," Willis said. "So, we've got 40 women all over the place. Her music has great inspiring harmonies, but it can be pretty challenging sometimes. It's a great opportunity for my chorus to stretch."
Bella Voce is also attempting to make the music more accessible to different audiences. At the Montpelier concert, a sign language interpreter will be signing the program.
"I think it adds a great deal of visual beauty to the performance," Willis said. "We're going to try to get some sign language students to come to the concert, to see how it can be done in a concert setting. We also have an outreach program to the choirs in various churches, so we can get some of the young people there."/
Walker's music seems to have become a major part of Bella Voce's repertoire. In fact, the choir recorded a CD of her music, "Now Let Us Sing," last year.
"I think that her music is oftentimes very insightful, like her whole reference to the sea (in 'Lessons from the Sea')," Willis said. "You can hear the ocean waves and almost feel like you're there. I think it's very evocative of a picture, a very dramatic picture."