Gwyneth Walker

You Can Hit It Really Hard

by Sarah Cahill, The East Bay Express, Oakland, California

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Read notes for Up-Front Concerto (1993) for hand drums solo and orchestra

...Percussion was also the centerpiece of another, different kind of orchestra concert over the weekend: the Community Women's Orchestra featuring Vermont composer Gwyneth Walker's Up-Front Concerto with hand-drum soloist Johanna Ceapach-Choinn. This was the kind of audience big orchestras dream of: families, little kids, couples, young and old sitting together and whooping enthusiastically after every piece. Of course, comparing a community ensemble in a high school auditorium to a professional symphony orchestra in the Paramount Theater is unfair to both groups. But something might be learned from the spirit of the women's orchestra concert, if only the thought that one of the little girls sitting next to me might get the idea, after hearing Walker's piece, that she could grow up to be a composer too.

Wearing a yarmulke (she's a pre-rabbinical school student) and sporting a sleeveless jacket to show off armfuls of colorful tattoos, Ceapach-Choinn gave a short introduction to the concerto, which she premiered three years ago with the Women's Philharmonic at Thornhill Elementary School in Oakland. Following the first movement which uses congas, the second movement highlights "the world's longest rainstick -- just an inch shorter than a Toyota station wagon," which Ceapach-Choinn had mounted on a platform. The third movement featured a cuica from Brazil, and rattles called "grapes." The concerto itself is a fun, jazzy showpiece for these instruments. Ceapach-Choinn controlled the rainstick's flow by tipping it slowly, swinging it from side to side, and rattling it. Walker's orchestral writing is spare in this movement, making the subtleties of the stick's sound audible. With the cuica -- a drum with a a stick inside it which is rubbed with a wet cloth -- Ceapach-Choinn made surprisingly expressive sounds, some melodic, some funny and rude, others very like speech, as when she entered in an intimate dialogue with violinist Sara Moore.

Smaller groups like the Community Women's Orchestra are filling in some of the gaps left by larger orchestras. Perhaps they can afford to be more creative with programming; risks do increase the bigger a group gets. But instead of reatreating to the conservative classics and old chestnuts, maybe our local symphony orchestras will find that by taking those risks they may discover what their audiences truly want to hear.