Gwyneth Walker

Composers Work Reflects Surroundings

by Charlie Huisking,The Herald Tribune, Sarasota, Florida
Published 2/04

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Read notes for Raise the Roof! (1989) for brass quintet
Read notes for Celestial Keys (2004) for tuba and organ

Composer Gwyneth Walker loves the peaceful valleys near her home in Vermont.

The natural beauty of the landscape infuses some of the diverse music she has written for orchestras, chamber ensembles and choruses.

But this winter, Walker has traded the snows of New England for the white sands of Manasota Key.

She's spent the last month at the Hermitage artists' retreat, writing a suite for tuba and organ. It will have its premiere at 4 p.m. Sunday at Bradenton's First United Methodist Church during a concert that will also feature other instrumental and choral works.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, audiences will have a second chance to meet Walker, and to hear one of her earlier compositions. Her "Raise the Roof!" will be part of the Florida West Coast Symphony's Salon Concert, featuring the Florida Brass Quintet.

The new piece, Celestial Keys, was commissioned by Jay Hunsberger, the quintet's tuba player. He will perform it with organist Jim Hawkinson.

"The title refers to the keys of the organ, of course, but also to the experience of living and working on Manasota Key, which has been heavenly," the 56-year-old Walker said. "The light coming in here has inspired some of the music."

A graduate of Brown University in Rhode Island and the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut, Walker is a former faculty member at Ohio's Oberlin College Conservatory. She left academia in 1982 to become a full-time composer.

She has more than 130 published compositions, from a piano quartet and an oboe concerto to sonatas, overtures and orchestral pieces.

Her work is "always accessible, although never simplistic," writes critic Carson P. Cooman.

Chris Confessore, a former assistant conductor with the FWCS, compares her style to that of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, though not derivative of them.

"It has a clean, open, classic American quality to it; a lot of energy and momentum," Confessore said.

Written in the '80s, Raise the Roof! was Walker's first brass quintet. It was written to celebrate the renovation of an old music hall not far from the Vermont dairy farm where she lives.

"It reflects the tradition of people joining together for barn raisings," she said. "It opens with a kind of rhythmic tapping that carpenters make with their hammers."

Walker is a Quaker, a denomination that, ironically, has no music in its services.

"But being a Quaker does influence my approach to music," she said. "For one thing, I'm practical. You hire me to do a job, and I'll get it done.

"And the Quaker egalitarianism influences me. This Sunday, I'll be with church choirs, and even the audience will be part of the concert at one point."

"Three days later, the symphony's professional musicians will be performing," Walker said. "And both concerts are of equal importance to me. That's what music does. It covers all the bases."