Gwyneth Walker

Philharmonic Programs Old and New, Local and International

by Jim Lowe,The Times Argus, Barre-Montpelier, Vermont
Published 5/03

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Read notes for Concerto for Bassoon and Strings (2000)

The Vermont Philharmonic is in love with theme concerts. The theme for the state’s oldest community orchestra’s concerts, next weekend in Barre and Randolph, is “Old World, New World.” But, it not only mixes the new and old, it brings together the local and international.

“I just like the idea of melding a couple of eras of music together,” explained Music Director Louis Kosma.

Indeed, Kosma has programmed traditional works – Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances” and Vanhal’s 18th century Double Bass Concerto – against the new, or at least newer – Copland’s “Outdoor Overture” and Braintree composer Gwyneth Walker’s Bassoon Concerto.

“I knew that the ‘Outdoor Overture’ and the Borodin would be a big challenge for the orchestra,” Kosma, the orchestra’s conductor since 1999, said. “Also, sonically it would use the full orchestra – a huge percussion section.”

It’s the soloists that bring together local and international. Kosma, also a bass player at New York’s world-traveling Metropolitan Opera, invited his colleague, Timothy Cobb, the opera’s associate principal bass, to appear as soloist. Cobb, the son of longtime Vermont Symphony Orchestra principal bass David Cobb, has also collaborated with the likes of the Emerson Quartet, Pinchas Zuckerman and James Levine, and was a member of the Chicago Symphony.

Local is Philharmonic principal bassoonist Jonna Goulding, who is also a family physician at Randolph’s Gifford Medical Center. She will also be the featured soloist in Walker’s Concerto for Bassoon and Strings, written by another local.

“Jonna just came on board in the middle of last season,” Kosma said. “She had such a nice influence on our woodwind section. When I discovered that Gwyneth had written a bassoon piece, it just was natural to ask her about doing it.”

Walker’s concerto was actually written for Goulding’s teacher, VSO principal bassoonist Janet Polk, who premiered the work in Concord, N.H.

“This piece is typical of my writing in that it alternates between movements that are quite lively and jazzy with ones that are lyrical,” Walker said of her three-movement concerto. “It’s not overly heavy, but there’s nothing theatrical about it.”

“It’s a wonderfully characteristic piece for the instrument, showing its bouncyness, its sprightlyness, its lyricism, its expressiveness,” Kosma said. “It takes the bassoon through all its registers, and there’s an interesting accompanying part for the orchestra too.”

Goulding has been working with Polk on the concerto, and Polk attended one of the Philharmonic’s rehearsals.

“This is one reason that I have not needed to be as engulfed in the preparation,” Walker said. “And having worked with Lou Kosma before, I know that he has a good handle on my musical style for strings, and it is a fairly jazzy string part. Of course, he plays jazz bass.”

Kosma said he has no intention of pushing American music or new music that will be hard for the audience to digest, but the music of American composer Aaron Copland is now a staple of the symphony orchestra repertoire.

“It’s a fresh sounding piece – still,” Kosma said of the “Outdoor Overture.” “It’s very typical of Copland. It has an openness, a real Americana feeling to it – plus we hear about six notes from ‘California, Here I Come!’”

The Vanhal Concerto replaces the originally scheduled Ferdinand David Concertino for Trombone and Orchestra. The trombonist, a member of the Met orchestra, had to cancel for personal reasons, postponing the performance for another year.

Johann Baptist Vanhal (sometimes spelled Wanhal), a contemporary and friend of Haydn, is pretty unknown, but not entirely.

“He was very prolific,” Kosma said. “Anything I’ve ever heard on the radio by him has been quite nice – not the pedestrian music of the time, but rather fresh.”

Kosma, himself, has played the Concerto for Double Bass in E Major as an audition piece, and knows it well.

“This concerto is quite lyrical, it has a nice tune,” Kosma said. “It uses probably the nicest singing area of the instrument, and has a touch of virtuosity.”

The revised orchestration the Philharmonic will use is by William P. Smith, former assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the parts have been donated for this performance by Roger Scott, principal bassist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and a teacher of Cobb a Kosma.

“I chose the ‘Polovtsian Dances,’” Kosma said, “because I know that immediately when we play the ‘Entrance of the Slaves, people will hear ‘Strangers in Paradise’ (from ‘Kismet’). Everybody will hear that tune and have a good feeling about it.”

While the work was chosen for its color and attractiveness for the audience, it also serves as a challenge for this ever-improving orchestra.

“For us, there are a lot of intricate woodwind passages and lines that have to mesh, as well as real dynamic range, from pianissimo to triple-forte,” Kosma said. “It’s almost a showpiece in that respect. It’s an audience-pleaser.”

When Kosma began rehearsing the Alexander Borodin classic, he planned to eliminate the seldom-performed first dance, which is fast and difficult. But the orchestra wanted to at least read through it – and Kosma was quite surprised by the result.

“Ok, we’ll do it,” he told them. “They really are playing better.”