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
Winning over a Vermont audience with an entire concert of contemporary music, particularly by one composer, is quite a feat, but that's exactly what happened Saturday at the North Congregational Church.
A capacity crowd responded enthusiastically when Bella Voce Women's Choir of Vermont premiered Gwyneth Walker's "Lessons from the Sea," which the Burlington ensemble had commissioned from the Braintree composer. The first half of the program was made up of a potpourri of Walker's choral and vocal works. (The concert was also performed at Montpelier's Bethany Church on Friday and Shelburne's Methodist United Church in Shelburne.)
The audience's response was no surprise as Walker, one of a few composers who make their entire living writing music, has the uncanny ability to combine an easily accessible surface with an underlying musical sophistication. That and her underlying theatrical bent have made her a popular composer throughout the United States. Now 61, she has received commissions for more than 170 works to date.
"Lessons from the Sea" is a half-hour cantata based on Anne Morrow Lindbergh's book of the same name, and readings from the book were interspersed throughout. In the case of these three concerts, the readings were done by Reeve Lindbergh, the author's daughter and a St. Johnsbury resident.
The book is autobiographical, relating Lindbergh's life in Connecticut managing her roles as mother, housewife and writer. It is also somewhat dated in that she lived and worked at home. Most of the stresses were internal, at least as far as the text for this work went. Lindbergh used seashells as a metaphor for her life, and this work is centered on those crustaceans.
Mellow would be the best way to describe Walker's interpretation of these ideas, but that's not to say there was no drama. While much of the work was sort of a choral storytelling, warm and rich in subtlety, there were dramatic punctuations. One is where commuter train sounds increase as Lindbergh is describing the multitude of tasks she must accomplish before her husband's return home. Clapping effects, and a danced segment also illustrated the text.
The work is largely consonant, with little darkness or emotional challenge. The entire work has a sea-like swaying ethereal feeling.
Bella Voce, founded and directed by Dawn Willis, is a 40-voice auditioned women's chorus that emanated from the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus, where Willis is assistant director. The collective sound is warm and rich, while the music-making is disciplined and vocally well-blended. Most importantly, the choir delivered the spirit of the work, never overdoing, which would be easy, but conveyed its power with their restraint. In short, it's one fine chorus.
The first part of the program was devoted to a wide variety of Walker's songs and one chorus, all settings of excellent poetry. The chorus, "Crossing the Bar," was set to Alfred Lord Tennyson, while the songs were interspersed among Mary Swenson, E.E. Cummings, Jelaluddin Rumi and Lucille Clifton's "No Ordinary Woman!" The songs were much in a contemporary Broadway style, but the accompaniments used more sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic language.
The soloists, all members of the chorus, acquitted themselves well. Pianists Shirley Smith and Xiudan Lin provided the able accompaniment.