‘This is our piece’

| 24 Dec 2015 | 11:41

Where can you find a high school student, a doll restorer, a rocket scientist, a nurse, a movie producer, a software engineer, a contractor, and a scuba diving instructor all working towards a common harmonic goal? At the Warwick Valley Chorale, an all-volunteer, non-audition community chorus that, after 75 years in existence, boasts 100 members of a vast variety of musical capabilities – and growing.

In honor of the big birthday, the group wanted to do something special. After all, the expected lifespan of a community chorus is five to 10 years. Typical causes of extinction include funding problems, a deficit of committed desire to investigate new musical works, a lack of warm bodies.

“It’s a struggle. People come in and have ideas, sing what they’re excited about, and then,” said Chorale President Zoey Savale, “it closes and drifts away.” Not here. Conductor Stanley Curtis, who has been at the group’s helm for more than a quarter century, “has the idea that we will rise to the occasion. And, we more or less do,” said Savale. “He keeps everything moving so the least skilled can keep up, and the most skilled are not bored to death.”

What better way to celebrate than having something composed specifically with them in mind—a musical monument whose longevity may surpass even the chorale’s?

But how to decide on a composer? It’s not every day that a group of amateur singers ventures into the unknown territory of having a piece commissioned in its honor, and there is no Commissioning a Musical Composition for Dummies (yet, anyway).

A spark of insight led Curtis to think of asking composer Dr. Gwyneth Walker, whose years living on a Vermont dairy farm jibe with Warwick’s own dairy farming history.

“Stylistically, what’s appealing about her is that she’s a combination of traditional and contemporary,” Curtis said, in contrast to her contemporaries who are often completely atonal. Curtis had programmed Walker’s music on a number of previous occasions, and the chorale had performed Walker’s music at Carnegie Hall—a venue that signifies the epitome of success in music.

You’ve probably never heard of her until now, but Walker, 68, is up there among the most widely performed American composers of our time. With more than 300 commissioned works under her belt, she is one of the very few composers popular enough to make a healthy living of it.

“I have always written music, whether I was a tiny child in my house, or walking down the streets here in the suburbs,” Walker told Dirt.

Upon first hearing the sounds of the piano from her crib when her sister began piano lessons, baby Gwyneth – daughter of an eccentric inventor – was enchanted. “What is that sound?!” she recalls thinking. Her parents soon offered her piano lessons as well. However, the piano teacher did not take kindly to Walker’s innovative (read: non-compliant) spirit. After a few lessons, during which Walker explained that she did not find the piece in the book very interesting, so she wrote a new one, the teacher suggested to her parents that perhaps they should let the girl do her own thing. Walker thus continued to teach herself, and by first grade, she was arranging pieces for all of her friends’ different instruments, and holding weekly rehearsals at her home.

When, as a professor at Oberlin College Conservatory, she found herself awash with commissions from near and far, she left a career in academia to pursue her dream of composing full-time. She moved to a bucolic farm in Vermont where she was surrounded by cows, yet within 10 minutes of a concert hall. She has since moved back to her childhood hometown of New Canaan, CT, but still has a composing studio in Vermont.

“I wouldn’t have left teaching if I didn’t feel that there was a great need for me to be writing and that I was called to write music,” said the 11th-generation Quaker. “I am somebody who writes for my own inner need to write.”

She composes everything from concertos for professional soloists to folk songs for school choruses —adapting each work to fit the range and capabilities of the performers — but her musical catalogue is “overflowing” with works like this one, for community choruses. That’s why a publisher initially indicated to the chorale that Walker had shifted her attention and might not accept the commission. But upon discovering that this group had performed other works of hers in the past, even using the title of her composition, Rejoice, as the title of a Christmas concert, she “knew that these were definitely fans.”

“It seemed like they were making a major investment,” Walker said. “I thought [the 75th anniversary] was an especially worthy occasion.” So she sat down to give new life to a traditional American gospel.

“It’s joyous, it’s celebratory, and it’s really upbeat,” said Savale, of Walker’s rendition of Down to the River to Pray. “It captures the mood of the whole group; this is a happy bunch of singers.”

“It really captures the zeitgeist,” agreed chorale member and percussionist Cameron Tidd.

Walker’s genius is her ability to take a piece of music with which familiarity has made us complacent, “and give it a twist so that you stop and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what that’s about!,’” said Dennis English, one of the chorale’s most experienced singers.

“If you can find a way to get somebody in the audience to have a little deeper understanding of what the hell is going on in this world and your life because of what you’ve written, or because of the way you perform something, wow, have you done a great deed for the day,” he said.

The singers’ joyful pride in their first commissioned composition is palpable, along with a healthy dash of the jitters at the prospect of performing the world premiere with the composer in attendance. Walker is one of the rare talents who makes the effort to attend all world premiere performances of her works.

“I feel like this is our piece,” said Melissa Tidd, chorale vice president, “and we’re gonna give it all we’ve got.”