Gwyneth Walker

Composer Helps Key Chorale Celebrate 20th Anniversary

by Charlie Huisking, The Herald-Tribune, Sarasota, Florida
Published 4/17/05

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Read notes for Three Days by the Sea (2004) for SATB chorus and piano

Vermont-based composer Gwyneth Walker was staying at an artists' retreat on the Gulf of Mexico last year when the Sarasota choral group Key Chorale asked her to write a piece for its 20th anniversary.

Inspired by her surroundings, Walker subsequently composed Three Days by the Sea, a suite Key Chorale will perform today in the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

"I was certainly influenced by my stay at the Hermitage," Walker said, referring to the artists' colony on Manasota Key. "That's when I came up with the concept. But I also went to one of Key Chorale's concerts, and I was impressed by the diversity of the large audience.

"I found myself wondering what all these people had in common. And I realized that everyone who moves to the area -- rich or poor, old or young, culturally attuned or not -- loves the sea."

Celebrating various aspects of the sea, Walker's music is set to texts by three writers.

The first section, "The Bottom of the Sea," is inspired by a poem by English poet Thomas Merton. "It's a profound poem, about the imagination and what's there and isn't there," Walker said. "It talks of mermaids at the bottom of the sea. It kept coming to my mind as I walked on the beach at the Hermitage."

The second portion, "Gifts from the Sea," incorporates the writings of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. "She writes about going to the sea to reflect on life, to find some solitude and balance and simplicity in her life," Walker said.

The final section, "Down to the Sea," draws from a poem by Canadian writer Norah Mary Holland.

"It's more of a ballad, and it's pretty dramatic," Walker said. "She writes of the strong, passionate sea, of the 'waters wild and wide.' It combines a love and a fear of the sea."

A graduate of Brown University in Rhode Island and the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut, Walker is a former teacher who left academia in 1982 to become a full-time composer.

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

Walker and Daniel Moe, Key Chorale's artistic director, have known one another since the 1980s, when she was a faculty member at Ohio's Oberlin College Conservatory and he conducted the Oberlin Choir.

"She's such a gifted composer, and she made a really serious attempt to become acquainted with Key Chorale and the community in which we live and work," Moe said. "We were also fortunate that she was able to come down for our early rehearsals this winter. She offered some great suggestions.

"She is also a keyboardist, and as such she understands what a piano can do. She has assigned a major role to the piano in this piece, and it's gorgeous music."

Pianist Virginia Bray will accompany the choir. Environmentalist Meg Lowman and television journalist Jack Perkins will read poetry during the performance.

The program will also include Edward Elgar's "Great is the Lord," and Mozart's Mass in C minor.

"Choral music with organ is one of the things Key Chorale has done so beautifully over the years," Moe said. "And this Elgar piece -- a setting of Psalm 48 -- is one of my favorites.

"We also wanted to perform a great work that hasn't been done in Sarasota before, so we selected the Mozart. We're getting a running jump on the 250th anniversary of his birth, which is next year."

Four soloists -- tenor David Kesler, baritone Daniel Cartlidge and sopranos Claire Singher and Michelle Giglio -- will be featured in the piece.

Moe said he can hardly believe that 20 years have passed since Key Chorale was established. The idea was conceived at a dinner party at the home of Moe and his wife, organist Ann Stephenson-Moe.

"Over dessert, we were talking about the need for a choral ensemble large enough to sing the major orchestral works," Moe said. "Everyone got excited, and we said, 'Let's go for it.'"

The 120-voice chorus now plays a major role in Sarasota's arts community. In addition to presenting its own concerts, Key Chorale is the official chorus for the Florida West Coast Symphony.

The singers have joined the orchestra in performing works such as Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 and Haydn's "Creation."

Until his retirement from Oberlin in 1992, Moe commuted between Ohio and Sarasota. "I was in a sense the permanent guest conductor, who came in the week of the concerts," Mo said.

"I got the glory, but Ann did all the dirty work. She deserves a lot of the credit for Key Chorale's success. It's so fitting that she'll be playing the organ for the Elgar in the anniversary concert."