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Gwyneth Walker

The Music of the Spheres and Then Some

by Steve Metcalf


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Which matters more, words or music?

This is an old question. It is the topic of an entire opera, the wordy and none-too-musical "Capriccio," by Richard Strauss. It figures in the writings of aestheticians. It touched off a debate between the wives of Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern.

Is any of this interesting on a nice summer night? Probably not. That's why the folks who run the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival have again thoughtfully seen to it that both music and words are part of each of the seven evenings in this summer's series.

For the first six events, music will constitute a roughly hourlong prelude to the poetry.

And as a bonus this year, there will be a seventh evening - - Sept. 7 - - in which something approaching aesthetic parity. In other words, the poetry will be sung.

We'll start with that last program.

The evening will celebrate the poetry of Lucille Clifton. Clifton's work has a won a fistful of prizes, and two of her collections have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize - - in the same year, no less.

Clifton's work has also won the admiration over the years of composer Gwyneth Walker. Walker is a nationally celebrated composer, and she's a known commodity to many around here, having grown up in New Canaan, and having earned her doctorate in music composition at the Hartt School.

At the Sept. 7 reading - - which begins at 6:30 p.m. rather than at 7:30 p.m., and is a 2-hour long interweaving of music and poetry - - we will hear several of Walker's settings of Clifton's poems. Among the performers will be singer Denise Walker (accompanied by pianist Estrid Eklof ) and members of the choral ensemble Concora.

"When you set poetry to music you sort of have to let the words take you where they lead you," says Walker, who has more than 100 commissioned works to her credit, and who lives most of the time in Braintree, VT.

"I really have a special love for 20th century American poetry, and I particularly like Lucille Clifton's poetry. I felt her collection "No Ordinary Woman" has a very jazzy sense about it, and so the music also has a kind of jazz feel, even though I don't ordinarily think of myself as a jazzy composer."

In a gesture of artistic unity, Walker says she has asked that each poem be read in its entirety before being sung.

From Northeast Magazine of the Hartford Courant, Hartford, Connecticut, June 7, 1998. Steve Metcalf is the Hartford Courant's classical music writer.