by Len Lear
In the Book of Mark, chapter 6, verse 4, in the New Testament’s “New Living Translation,” Jesus is quoted as saying, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.”
Similarly, I have discovered over the years that many extraordinarily creative and highly accomplished individuals in Chestnut Hill and adjacent communities are barely known to most of their neighbors.
Case in point: Justin Hopkins, whom I recently wrote about in a two-part series, is a Mt. Airy resident and opera singer who has performed leading roles in major opera houses in the U.S. and Europe and has won national competitions, but area residents I talked to about the articles said they had never heard of him.
Similarly, Margaret “Peggy” Garwood, a local resident, is probably unknown to almost everyone who sees this article, even though her five operas and many other compositions have been performed all over the world. About a month ago, Michal Schmidt, a brilliant pianist and cello player whom I profiled in the April 9 issue of Local Life, suggested that I interview Garwood. “She lives in Wyndmoor and is a wonderful composer,” Schmidt said.
I am ashamed to say I had never heard of Garwood, but when I did a little research, I discovered that she was a prolific composer of operatic works that have received full productions in New York, Philadelphia and on the West Coast. Her song cycles have been widely performed in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Two pieces for chorus and orchestra, “Tombsongs” and “Rainsongs,” were both commissioned and premiered by the Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia. A third, “Lovesongs,” was commissioned by The Music Group of Philadelphia.
Her opera for youth, “Joringel and the Songflower,” which was commissioned by the Camerata Opera Theater, was also performed at the Chautauqua Institute in New York. Her other operas include “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” which was premiered by the Pennsylvania Opera Theatre, and she was the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including three grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, five fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and awards from ASCAP, AMC and the National Federation of Music Clubs.
And there were many other compositions that could not possibly be mentioned here, but she did spend 10 years on her final opera, “The Scarlet Letter” (based on the classic Nathaniel Hawthorne novel), which had its world premiere Nov. 19, 2010, by the Academy of Vocal Arts at the Merriam Theater with a 55-piece orchestra. (She also taught music at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, my alma mater.)
According to an article in the Daily News at the time, “The Scarlet Letter” was a “dramatic thunderbolt (that) stunned the audience. For years, Garwood worked daily on the piece with consummate craft and patience, even as she was besieged by requests to finish the opera. Her constant support was her husband Donald Chittum, a professor of world music, theory and many other subjects at the University of the Arts since 1963. ‘I’m afraid of commissions because composers always have to stop before it’s finished,’ Garwood said in 2010. ‘The trouble with music today is too many premature births; works not given their proper time. Composing is a slow process and can’t be rushed.’”
When I found this all out, I was excited to meet Garwood, and I attempted to contact her by phone and email, but I received no response. Then, in the May 6 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, I read that Margaret had died May 3 of heart failure in her home in Wyncote (not Wyndmoor but still close to Chestnut Hill). She was 88.
When I contacted Michal Schmidt about this sad news, she said, “In 1989 I started my studies toward a Masters Degree in Cello Performance at the University of the Arts. Donald Chittum was the chair of the music department. As a mother of two young children back then, I had a tough time, and he was a gentle, supportive entity in my life as a student.
“A few years later, as a member of Network for New Music I encountered Peggy Garwood and her music. It took a little time for me to learn that she was Donald Chittum’s wife. Her music captivated me. Its attention to details of expression and the fantastic skills she had in marrying music to poetry made her music so deeply sincere and moving. Her pianistic skills were astounding too, all the way into her 80s.
“Over the last few years, in my Tribute series, I performed many of her songs (with soprano Shannon Coulter). Challenging and intricate to learn, I asked to come to her for guidance and coaching. She repeatedly refused, telling me she had complete confidence in my ideas. Not once did she ‘complain’ that I interpreted her music ‘wrongly.’ She and Don attended many of my concerts, always showering me with their love and support. I will miss her greatly.”
A memorial concert for Peggy will take place Sunday, June 7, 3 p.m., at the Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce St. For more information, call 215-735-1387 or visit www.avaopera.org.