When the Spirit Sings. Chamber Music of Gwyneth Walker (b. 1947). String Trio, Piano Quartet, Two Quartets for Clarinet and Strings, and Piano Trio. Musica Harmonia: Naoko Takao, piano, Leslie Nicholas, clarinet, Joan Griffing, violin, Diane Phoenix-Neal, viola, and Beth Vanderborgh, cello. Centaur CRC 3524. ©2016. TT 53:57

Since abandoning academic employment in 1982, Gwyneth Walker’s catalog lists more than 300 commissioned works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, chorus, and solo voice. One of her focuses during the past 30 years has been dramatic works that combine music with readings, acting, and movement. Her choral and vocal music is published by E. C. Schrimer and her orchestral and instrumental pieces by Lauren Keiser Music.

Musica Harmonia was founded in 2007 with the purpose of promoting peace and cultural understanding through musical collaboration. They have actively concertized throughout North America and Brazil. Four of the five musicians have North Carolina connections. Joan Griffing, Diane Phoenix-Neal, and Beth Vanderborgh have been members of the Eastern Music Festival faculty and the latter two have been or are members of the Greensboro Symphony. Among the schools Leslie Nicholas has been associated was the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Naoko Takao has served on the faculty of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami besides active concertizing at such places as the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater and the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress.

Walker’s writing for strings is extraordinarily skillful, fully exploiting the range and warmth of tone of the instruments. These scores are largely tonal. As might be expected of music set to either songs or poetry, the melodies are deeply evocative.

When the Spirit Sings (2011) is a set of three American spirituals arranged for string trio. The moods range from soulful and poignant to energetic. Cellist Vanderborgh really digs in the solo opening of “My Lord, What a Morning,” reminding me of the vocal depths of Paul Robinson or William Warfield. Each player is given an ample spot in turn. Phoenix-Neal and Griffing also play with rich, warm tones and impeccable intonation. Muted strings represent sobbing in the poignant second song “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.” Rhythms and chords build up to conjure the vivid energy of “This Train.” This 10:04 work is a marvelous addition to the repertoire.

Letters to the World (2001) consists of five short movements for piano quartet inspired by particular poems by Emily Dickerson. The movements are “Invocation,” “Spring,” “Nobody!” “Passion,” and “Indian Summer.” Open fifths and octaves of the piano contribute to the simplicity of the first song. Short patterns by the strings suggest dancing patterns of sunlight under trees in the second. “Nobody” finds a cricket chorus about a pond, suggested by the piano, while the strings conjure locusts and croaking frogs.

Oscillation between pitches is just one method used to suggest a boat at sea in “Passion.” “Indian Summer” is evoked by the piano’s playful scalular patterns coupled with rising and falling lines in the strings. The work’s 16:04 is filled with a cornucopia of attractive and fascinating music. The balance between keyboard and strings is ideal. The phrasing of the players is imaginative, and their instrumental articulation and color are remarkable. 

The Peacemakers (2012) background story would nearly equal its 14:18. Its four movements parallel the course of Leymah Gbowee‘s book, Mighty Be Our Powers, which tells of the author’s organizing of Liberian women to peacefully protest against the Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. The program notes include the optional narrative poems by Martha Greene Eads as inspired by Gbowee’s book. (Eads has many N.C. connections ranging from calling the Blue Ridge Mountains through Wake Forest University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.) This work is scored for clarinet, violin, viola, and cello with optional reader (not recorded). Among the many technics used are tapping the string instruments to suggest drumming, dissonant chords evoking anger, descending chromatic lines suggest tears, trembling sonorities portray the fear of war, and the full use of the ranges of the instruments.

Nicholas’ spinning of the clarinet line is magical with marvelous breath control and subtle dynamics. The interweaving of the three string instruments is a constant pleasure.

Two short works complete this disc. A Vision of Hills (2002) for Piano Trio is a setting of the traditional Irish hymn “Be Thou My Vision.” A Cup of Rejoicing (2012) for Clarinet, Violin, Viola, and Cello is a celebratory setting of the Shaker song of the same title. The music in both of these is delectable and both are given superbly expressive performances.

The recorded sound on this disc is outstanding with a wonderful sense of the instruments within an apt special acoustic. This is another winning disc from Ovation Sound, Winston-Salem, NC produced and engineered by Evan Richy. I expect to often take this richly satisfying disc down from the shelf.