Chamber ensemble Musica Harmonia performs Gwyneth Walker‘s When the Spirit Sings (2011), commissioned by the ensemble, on September 30 at Eastern Mennonite University. Formed in 2007 by members Joan Griffing (violin), Beth Vanderborgh (cello), Diane Phoenix-Neal (viola) and Naoko Takao (piano), the group dedicates itself to promoting peace and cultural understanding through music collaboration.
When the Spirit Sings is a set of three American spirituals arranged for string trio. The intent was to select songs with a variety of character – soulful, energetic, mournful and rhythmic – and present them in new ways through idiomatic string writing. The “voices” of the strings are well-suited to the language of spiritual songs.
In all three movements, the original tunes are shared between the strings, with the other players providing accompaniment. And then, “excursions” away from the basic melody occur. In “My Lord, What a Morning,” a middle section moves into the minor mode, with the violin playing a variation of the theme marked “soulfully.” The viola follows with a further “offshoot” of the melody. This leads to a closing section which crosses back and forth between the major and minor modes (in blues style). One might hear an expression of the lyrics “My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall!” in the cascades of descending scales.
The second movement is an arrangement of the very poignant spiritual, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” The strings are muted, with sorrow. A background pattern introduced by the viola and cello may be heard as sobbing rhythms. Motives similar to these are heard throughout this movement. Patterns which express sobbing or falling tears form the essence of the music. At the end, the viola and violin ascend, as the soul rising to heaven.
“This Train” is an energetic, rhythmic movement. Although the energy is controlled at the start, activity increases by the second verse (viola theme), as the “outer” instruments scurry up and down the track. Later, chords build up in pyramid fashion with a crescendo and accelerando leading to a raucous finale. The train then slides (in glissando) to a halt at the end.
“This Train (is bound for glory)” was created while the composer was riding her local train, the “Vermonter,” to a concert in New Haven, CT. The “Vermonter” derailed upon the return trip. But the music is expected to stay “on track!”
Description by Gwyneth Walker.
Musica Harmonia and Centuar Records released a complete recording of music by Gwyneth Walker. When the Spirit Sings: Chamber Music of Gwyneth Walker is available here.