Gwyneth Walker composes a birthday bash
It’s one thing to throw yourself a 60th birthday party and be serenaded by your guests. It’s quite another to celebrate with a two-day, five-concert extravaganza involving hundreds of singers and musicians . . . and write all the music yourself.
One of the few people who could pull this bash off, and justify its scale, is Gwyneth Walker , the nationally acclaimed composer from Connecticut who has lived on a Vermont dairy farm since 1983. From her studio there, waves of music have emanated to rock the classical music world. Walker’s orchestral work has been performed by the New York Philharmonic; her choral work has been celebrated in a Carnegie Hall gala; and countless high school, college, community and professional choirs, orchestras, soloists and chamber groups around the country regularly perform her compositions.
Though she turned 60 in March, Walker is celebrating this weekend, October 13 and 14, at the Chandler Music Hall in Randolph. Saturday’s four vocal-recital and instrumental-ensemble concerts include the premiere of three new works by Walker, and performances by a soprano and pianist from Chicago, and the Tulsa Trio from Oklahoma. Sunday’s Choral Festival features 11 choirs from Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The opening piece: “Gestalt at Sixty,” a narrative reading of May Sarton’s reflective 1972 poem that Walker set to piano.
Do her neighbors in tiny Braintree — population 1200 — know they have a world-class composer in their midst? “No, I’m completely ignored,” Walker jokes by telephone. “But that works for me.” A Quaker with a jaw-dropping work ethic, she’s almost too busy for this interview, but agrees to squeeze in the call during a short post-dinner break — after which she’ll compose until bedtime. “Most of the time I’m just trying to figure out what note to write on the page,” she says.
Walker is not, of course, working in total isolation. She got the idea for her birthday bash from a Randolph neighbor and “wonderful singer,” Marjorie Drysdale, who invited friends to a musical soirée at her home a few years ago to record one another singing favorite songs. “One could think, ‘Well, gee, what a self-centered thing,’ but I didn’t think so. I thought it was a lovely evening,” Walker says. She began planning her own version a full two years ago, after securing the out-of-state performers, “because I thought how nice it would be to have these professionals come to Randolph, Vermont.”
Word spread, and other performers asked to participate, including a clarinetist Walker knew from Springfield, Massachusetts. “Then I decided to do some choruses. And, you know, with email these days, I just sent out one invitation to everyone — and they all said yes!”
Walker certainly has a lot to celebrate. In a revenue-challenged classical music business that tends to rely on the name recognition of dead composers, she is not just alive but irrepressible, and composing new works at a terrific rate. And in a profession still dominated by men, Walker is the rare female success story.
Like most composers, Walker plied her trade in academia for a while. But in 1982, she gave up a coveted teaching job at Oberlin to make her living entirely from commissions and the sale of her music — all of which is in print. Walker now has more than 170 commissioned works under her belt, a number that awes fellow Vermont composer Erik Nielsen: “It takes me months to write one 25-minute piece,” he admits. “And Gwyneth told me a few years ago that she probably has enough commissions lined up to last the rest of her life.”
Success aside, Walker seems to be a naturally joyous soul. Scattered throughout her prolific composer’s notes are words like “glorious” and “grandeur.” (Walker’s prodigious website  offers these notes, along with her essays about music, her entire catalogue, media clips and photos of her rented farmhouse, nearby cows and the neighbors’ swimming hole. “My substitute for a secretary,” she called the site in a 2005 interview with Vermont Public Radio.) She often chooses delightfully funny, subversive lyrics. Her song for a female chorus, “Women Should Be Pedestals,” sets the titular Swenson poem — describing women as rocking horses “to be joyfully ridden . . . until the restored egos dismount” — to an equally tongue-in-cheek melody. Exclamation points punctuate her titles, such as Handfuls of Love!, a medley of Shaker songs, and No Ordinary Woman!, a song cycle based on the poems of Lucille Clifton.
Walker also has an unabashed predilection for hamming it up, challenging the notion that choral and orchestral performances should be staid and formal. In the Family Farm Song Cycle, the conductor uses cow-milking motions to conduct. “Take My Hand,” a song for mixed choirs that ends with the clicking and hissing of a train coming to a halt, requires the conductor to imitate a chugging train with arm movements. Match Point, an orchestral piece about Walker’s other great obsession — tennis — was premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1988. In it, court sensation Billie Jean King played timpani by bouncing tennis balls off the drums and brass section. The racquet she used now hangs on a wall in Walker’s home.
Walker’s music is “very accessible,” declares Nielsen. “I’ve been in audiences many times when her pieces are performed, and they always get a good reception. She doesn’t try to make things thorny or hard to understand.”
Many of Walker’s works evoke the triumphant fanfares and dance-inspiring, Shaker-based melodies of Aaron Copland. “Yes, I sound like Aaron Copland with a sense of humor,” she says without hesitation — clearly, she’s fielded the comparison before. Walker met the elderly Copland when she was in graduate school, but claims he was never a direct influence because “my style was set by age 16.” So it’s merely a coincidence that their styles are so similar? “No, no coincidence at all,” she counters. “We’re both American. I sound like an American composer and he does, too.”
Walker’s talent for melody was fostered during her training at the Hartt School of Music , where she studied under Italian opera composer Arnold Franchetti, a friend of Giacomo Puccini and a student of Richard Strauss. Frustrated by the trend toward non-tonal music when he first arrived in the States, Franchetti encouraged his students to write melodies. To his surprise, the only one who happily complied was his sole female student — Gwyneth Walker.
She had been picking out melodies on the family piano from the age of 2, as she tells it, as a way to express her feelings. By the time she was 5 and receiving her first piano lessons, she had already composed complete pieces, and balked at her teacher’s insistence that she learn scales. That teacher finally told Walker’s parents it would do the child more good to let her follow her muse. Walker went on to earn her Bachelor’s in music composition from Brown University and her Master’s and Doctorate from Hartt.
Dawn Willis, founder and director of the Essex-based Bella Voce Women’s Chorus of Vermont , says that Walker is renowned as a composer dedicated to performers. “She travels to every premiere of her work,” says Willis. “She’s accessible; she doesn’t teach or have a family, so this is her whole focus.”
Walker confirms that she made 18 trips around the country in the last season alone. She often attends not just premieres but rehearsals, where she can correct the inevitable mistake, or remind singers to smile. “Some-times they forget; they’ve been singing too much Bach or ‘Ave Maria,’” she suggests bluntly.
Occasionally Walker will attend a performance, introduce herself to the director afterward, and offer to collaborate. This is how Willis recalls first meeting the composer in the fall of 2005. Their work together resulted in a CD recording (see sidebar review) and a commission for a song cycle based on Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s book Gifts From the Sea. As Erik Nielsen puts it, “She’ll approach a group she senses is ready for a commission and propose one. A lot of times, they don’t even know they’re ready because, you know, they’ve been busy doing Beethoven.”
This may be true of local groups, but Walker describes the commission process a bit differently: “I sit at home and they come!” People usually contact her by email and specify their desires — something to celebrate their group’s anniversary, for instance, or a 2-to-3-minute anthem — along with their budget. Walker accepts or rejects a commission based on whether it fits her long list of “things that I want to write.” In this way, she avoids repetition, since many groups want similar types of pieces. “I’m trying to balance my catalogue; you want to have a catalogue that’s interesting to you,” Walker explains. “There are composers who have a niche — say, church anthems — but that’s not me.”
That said, she has written a lot of choral music, especially for women’s choirs. As Walker puts it, “There wasn’t much women’s choral music out there” before she started filling the void. To complement that body of work, she’s now taking commissions primarily for combined orchestra and chorus and — her new interest — narrative-accompanied orchestral music. “In a few years, though, I might be on to something else,” Walker muses. “Who knows?”
For the moment, she seems happy to acknowledge her achievements so far, as well as touting the merits of her Vermont home. “All these directors [at the Randolph event] are my friends, and some of the performers, too,” Walker says. “I feel fortunate . . . I’ve been in Vermont 25 years, and I have met a lot of people and written a lot of music since I’ve come here. That’s the celebration.”