Gwyneth Walker

Original Music Highlight of Jubilee

by Donald Thompson

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Read notes for New Millennium Suite (1999-2000) for SATB chorus and orchestra

The most enduring accomplishment of the Manatee Millennium Jubilee may turn out to be what was certainly its most ambitious project. This was the preparation and presentation of a new large-scale musical work, especially commissioned and especially designed for the specific musical forces which would participate in its presentation. The new work, by Gwyneth Walker, was commissioned for the Jubilee by the Fine Arts Music Series of the First United Methodist Church of Bradenton in a tradition reaching back through centuries of custom-tailored music, painting, sculpture, literature and other artistic manifestations.

Gwyneth Walker's Millennium Suite is a worthy product of this tradition, and also of another tradition in art music: that of "useful music": music of less than staggering technical difficulty, to be enjoyed by performers of less than virtuoso ability and by audiences of general musical interest. Millenium Suite was conceived in this way, and was performed on Friday evening by a massed ensemble formed not by driven professionals but by community-based musical forces. The anchor of these forces was the Sarasota Pops orchestra, augmented by a string ensemble formed by school instrumentalists. The choral mass was formed by members of selected church and school choirs, along with a children's chorus. Conducting the entire ensemble was Patricia Stenberg, musical director of the Sarasota Pops itself.

Gwyneth Walker possesses excellent academic credentials in music, yet she withdrew from academe to walk the rocky road of the independent composer: the composer not affiliated with a sheltering institution but dependent only on a reputation built through successful compositions and the willingness to work to order. This is a refreshing departure from the situation of many composers today, who teach music theory in universities while grumbling about the lack of demand for their compositions. Ms. Walker has expressed her view very forcefully, in an essay significantly titled "Yes, This is a Business." She points out that "composers can gain many performances of their music if their music is playable, communicative and well written, and if the composer is organized enough to have the music available when requested."

And, yes, Ms. Walker's Millennium Suite is indeed playable, communicative and well written. Its five sections, including an opening orchestral fanfare, are united by the thread of spiritual jubilation which runs through the choral texts, but the musical treatment varies widely among these sections. A setting of the traditional text "Peace I Ask of Thee, O River" flows gently through the chorus and the accompanying string orchestra, while "Down by the Riverside" is a jazzy symphonic stylization of the tune, complete with clarinet smears, hand clapping and audience participation. "Whole World in His Hands" brings forth the children's chorus, singing while performing the well known gestures and accompanied by piano, bass and percussion; "When in Our Music God is Glorified" unites the entire stage in a powerful final statement.

Was Ms. Walker pleased by this premiere performance of her new work? I suspect that she was, for the performance was quite successful within the conditions imposed by the nature of the especially assembled performance ensembles and the logistics of preparing the work; for example, another rehearsal would have permitted the smoothing out of some minor orchestral irregularities and uncertainties. On the other hand, some aspects of the performance were highly praiseworthy: the secure warmth of the string orchestra in "Peace I Ask of Thee, O River," for example, and the generally clear pronunciation of this especially assembled chorus throughout the work.

Yes, I believe that the composer can be pleased with this premiere performance, and that the patrons and organizers can be proud of the contribution which they have made to the art of music and to the Manatee Millennium Jubilee.

From the Bradenton Herald, Bradenton, Florida, January 4, 2000