Meredith is into extended visits in a big way. Earlier this season, composer Libby Larsen spent some time at the West Raleigh college, and earlier still there was a brief residency by the great Walter Hautzig. At the start of the season, too, the school put on a two-day Kurt Weill tribute that provided an overview of that composer's work. The latest entry in what appears to be an ongoing series of in-depth events involved Vermont-based composer Gwyneth Walker, who lives on a dairy farm (and whose cows figure prominently at her website, http://www.gwynethwalker.com/). On April 8 and 9, she was on hand for a convocation, a lecture, various master classes and two evening "informances," during which selections from her substantial output were performed by various artists and ensembles. The net result was a refreshing albeit fairly brief series of exposures to a living, breathing composer who is, coincidentally, female. The Walker residency was sponsored under the banner of Meredith's "2001-2002 Year of Music," and the program booklet bore the logo of "The Meredith Center in the Arts for Women."
The first concert consisted of five short selections, several of which were drawn from larger scores. Graduate students Ruth Brown and Timothy Owens got things underway with Theme and Variation for flute and piano, composed in 1979. The composer introduced the work, her first post-grad-school product, and the performers nicely contrasted its slow introductory theme, inspired by a Welsh folktune, with the much more animated single variation that ensued. Three Meredith freshmen-soprano Ruth Ball, flutist Tunisia Bullock, and pianist Sarah Beth Jackson-offered "Sleep Little Bird," a lullaby, drawn from a Christmas opera, that incorporates an atypical text, absent in the program, but at the composer's urging, the work was performed twice, and the words came through much better the second time around. In the first work given, the flute and piano were fairly evenly matched. In the lullaby, the flute provided appealing commentary and mood enhancement for the vocalist, although at one point there was a lovely little duet. Soprano Waltye Rasulala, the former grants officer of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation who is now Director of Development of the NC Partnership for Children (Smart Start), holds degrees from Westminster Choir College and has often graced area stages; she is a continuing-ed student at Meredith, and she was joined by Owens and senior-class violinist Valerie Brantley for "This Is My Father's World," a new (1986) setting of the familiar hymn text that forms part of a cantata. Walker encouraged these artists to have a second go at the music, too, after moving the soprano forward on the platform. As with the previous number, it was beneficial to have the chance to hear the piece twice, and again the words came through better during the repeat. Incidentally, "This Is My Father's World" ends with the singer and the violinist tapping stones together; this must provide a nice bit of closure to performances of the entire cantata, which begins, Walker explained, with a section about stones voting.... The program ended with two short songs, sung by soprano Sally Thomas and accompanied by James Fogle, Meredith faculty members. The first song, "I Will Be Earth," is a solo version of a choral work that was performed on the second evening of the residency. The other, "maggie and milly and molly and may," is part of a set of five songs that involve e.e. cummings texts. There were handsomely realized. The program lasted less than an hour and would have been shorter, still, had not several of its components been repeated. It would have made sense to have presented the choral version of "I Will Be Earth" at the same time as the (apparently) slightly revised solo edition. Walker's visit brightened the musical life of our community but was not well advertised and drew too few people. As we have noted on previous occasions, Meredith missed an opportunity to extend the educational benefit of the residency by beefing up the program, which was again a bare-bones affair, devoid of texts, notes and artist bios (although a xerox from the composer's webpage was provided).
The format for the second evening was similar-Walker introduced each work and the performers introduced themselves-but there were no repeats. The offerings provided stronger glimpses of the work of the visiting composer, whose music is richly varied and solidly forged. "Rhythms from the North Country" (a reference to Vermont) required solo pianist Chrissy Cain, a graduate student, to play and tap and strum strings at various times, thus involving the entire instrument. "Touch the Sky," for cello and piano, played by faculty members Virginia Ewing Hudson and James Fogle, began starkly and bleakly but its second section was somewhat less forbidding. Walker creates a mood with the first measures of each piece but almost always injects surprises as the music unfolds.
A single solo vocal number, "The Thirty-Eighth Year," was sung by soprano Dorrie Casey, who is going for a second degree in what she described as the "23+" program; Janis Dupre was the adept accompanist for this and the rest of the program. Of the solo singers, Casey fared best in terms of diction and projection; in her case, the absence of texts in the program was not a liability. The song is a mostly sad, reflective piece that addresses regrets of lost time, looking back from the ripe old age (!) of 38. Its poem and the texts of three fine choral numbers, sung later, were by Lucille Clifton.
The rest of the program was devoted to choral music, which is apparently Walker's forte. There was considerable variety and some wit in the offerings, presented by four choirs-Meredith's Chorus, led by Lisa Fredenburgh, UNC-Chapel Hill's Women's Glee Club, directed by Sue Klausmeyer, Women's Voices Chorus, whose performances and conductor, Mary Lycan, have often been noted in these pages, and Meredith's Chorale, again under Fredenburgh's attentive leadership. The Meredith Chorus performed "I Will Be Earth" and the UNC visitors offered "In Autumn" and "Mornings Innocent" (which is particularly moving), all from Songs for Women's Voices (1993); vocal soloists in the UNC portions were Robin Westfall, Lisa Offaha, Bethany Kidd and Susan Dodge. The texts were read before each performance. Based on these samples, it is a shame that the entire set wasn't performed. Lycan's more mature singers were heard in "My Girls," which featured Clifton's poetry. These delightful reflections of the joys of femininity ended with a bracing "(Me and You Be) Sisters" that involved considerable stage business. The grand finale was a stirring rendition of "I Thank You God," one of cummings's great poems, prepared for a national convention in 1998. This was given by a core of singers from the Meredith College Chorale, augmented by volunteers from the other ensembles.
Walker is clearly an important living composer whose music has not enjoyed much exposure here. With luck, we will have the pleasure of hearing more from her in the future.