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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution
by Everett Hafner
Greenfield - - Last Saturday, a fresh breeze of early spring brought us a symphonic work from the hills of Vermont where Gwyneth Walker, American composer, rises every morning to begin her day of creating new music inspired by poetry, sports, her neighbors, ambient wildlife, the view from her studio--and more unsolicited commissions than she can handle. What we heard as the opening piece of the Pioneer Valley Symphony's fourth concert of the season was Walker's "Light of Three Mornings" (1987), an 18-minute orchestral setting for what she sees and hears when dawn breaks on her dairy farm. Its three brief movements were followed by Gershwin's "Concerto in F" (1927) with Gary Steigerwalt at the piano, and the concert ended with Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, Opus 92 (1812).
Walker's approach to composition--the lightness, deftness and accessibility typified in what we heard--is diametrically opposed to the usual serious complexity we have come to expect form "modern" music. Speaking to a preconcert assembly, she spoke about these aspects of her work, in a way that charmed us with its mixture of candor, diffidence, pride, and high principle--all with a disarming humor that could be misleading. "Don't think I'm not serious about my music," she says. "I plan a piece carefully before I begin. It's like designing and building a house; a combination of thought and intuition." One of her teachers at the Hartt School, Arnold Franchetti, had been a student of Richard Strauss, who always emphasized the importance of "the line" in orchestral writing: the entrance of every instrument has to have a reason, a thematic purpose. As for her style and its influences, she says simply, "Like Copland, I'm very American, but with my own style. I'm just me."
While hundreds of American composers hold teaching positions in colleges and universities, Gwyneth Walker is able to make a living from her creative work alone. Asked how many such composers there are, she said she knew only a few. Unmarried, with no children ("I think of my music the way others may think of their children," she says), and living in a peaceful setting where she is appreciated and encouraged, she is not only free for composing full time, but also free from restrictions often associated with the conservatory environment. "I'm always conscious of the audience, " she says. "They want to hear music that's new, and I want to give them something they can appreciate and enjoy."
After hearing Walker's music beautifully performed by the orchestra and enthusiastically welcomed by a full house, I was let down by what followed. Gershwin's attempt to write a concerto repeating the huge success of "Rhapsody in Blue" was poorly received in 1927 and for good reason: it's weakly constructed and far too long--and by now its style of serious symphonic jazz is also dated. As for Paul Phillip's stately reading of one more Beethoven symphony, it reminded us of how new and fresh Gwyneth Walker sounded by contrast.
Originally printed in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Monday, April 3, 1995