Julie Becker: Poetry in Song returns live

In a dark corner of a nightclub sits John Keats, dressed in trousers and an open-necked shirt with puffy sleeves. He leans back, runs his hand through his thick auburn hair and listens with delight to the suave tones of a woman’s voice singing the words to “The Dove”, a poem he wrote in 1819 – and now supported by the jazzy pinch of a double bass.

While the ghostly presence of a 19th century poet is pure fantasy, the idea of ​​Swinging with Keats is not. It’s the brainchild of 17-year-old Egan Rogers, who plays double bass in the Nevada Union High School band and is enrolled in the InConcert Sierra’s Composers project, led by Mark Vance – a class that currently has 17 student composers. .

Egan and his bandmates were tasked with selecting a poem and setting it to music for voice and an instrument. The chosen poems run the gamut from Keats to Shelley, Frost to Poe, Cummings to Wordsworth and more. And after weeks of creation, the new compositions are ready to be unveiled – ready to be performed by accomplished musicians who live in our musically rich region.



As for the unveiling, the big news is – after a two-year COVID hiatus, the full program, titled Poetry in Song, will be presented live, rather than virtual, this coming Sunday – the first live performance of these young composers since February of 2020. A reason to celebrate enough, but also a chance to discover the variety of tastes, styles and interpretations of the 17 composers.

It seems that almost every year a young composer chooses Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” – one of his best-known poems. And yet, each musical rendition has been completely different due to personal response and outlook.



After 14-year-old Ari Cook absorbed the poem and remembered the familiar ending – “Two worlds diverged in a wood, and I-/I took the one less traveled, / and it made all the difference” – he composed music that was quite advanced harmonically. While parts of the piece sound like a pop song, at other times the piano accompaniment sounds more like Bach – creating a deftly woven background for a baritone voice.

As for Eliza Hagy, 17, she challenged herself to set William Wordsworth’s sonnet, “The World Is Too Much With Us”, to music. In the poem, Wordsworth complains about the state of the world: “In getting and spending, we waste our powers; / We see little in the Nature that is ours; / We gave our hearts, a sordid boon! – apt comparison with the anguish we face today.

In the past, Eliza has played the viola when her compositions have been performed, but this time she is on the keyboard. To accompany her song, she has written a full piano accompaniment, filled with rising and falling arpeggios and delicate rhythms, keeping her busy as both composer and performer!

While Eliza chose a rather heady poem, 14-year-old Jaxon English went in the opposite direction, choosing just to have fun with Edgar Guest’s “Be a Friend.” To accompany words like, “You don’t need the money: / Just a sunny disposition,” Jaxon wrote a jazzy, upbeat, feel-good track with plenty of syncopation and a few relevant pauses before moving on to top speed. next stanza.

Spinning 180 degrees, we move from a fiery number to a poem that has been printed on cards and read at memorial services for over 80 years. Seventeen-year-old Natalie Hart set her music to Mary Elizabeth Frye’s much-read “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep,” and yet her piece doesn’t sound funereal. No impression of a dirge, but rather a tender and haunting voice beyond the veil.

When setting text to music, composers should ideally not eliminate lines or add words that are not already present. However, there’s room for a touch of artistic license, as it’s okay to repeat words that already exist – an opening that Natalie used freely in the latter part of her piece. Since so many lines of the poem begin with the words: I am—as in “I am the gentle showers/I am the fields of ripening grain,” Natalie makes the alto sing: “I am, I am, I am — each time followed by an evocative echo of the clarinet. It’s a simple change but done with great eloquence.

Finally, moving from grave to pure fantasy, 17-year-old Kate Hershberger wrote a playful musical setting for April Lindner’s poem “Carried Away,” imagining someone watching a plastic bag flutter in the wind. This poem is full of delightful language. Consider: “danced until a whoosh/current blew him past the power lines” or “little ghost/not yet snagged by twig fingers” or “thin-skinned he was pulsating , translucent jellyfish”.

Writing for voice and harp, sometimes using original rhythms, Kate managed to capture the flavor and fun of the poem, creating an overall mood in her music.

During the pandemic, the 17 young musicians in the composer program have managed to stay on track — to unleash and develop their creativity during a particularly difficult time in our history. Their classes were on Zoom rather than live, which made interaction more difficult, but they persevered. And as a result, 17 new plays will debut on Sunday afternoon, March 20, at the Lutheran Church of Peace in Grass Valley.

The program will offer a musical montage of poetry, which can sometimes be soothing, provocative or uplifting, like life. A glimpse into the wise and thoughtful mind of a remarkable group of young composers.

Julie Becker has been following Mark Vance’s Composers Program for over 10 years. She is a member of the ICS Education Committee and lives in Nevada City

Ken Hardin and Beth Gillogly perform at the Poetry in Song concert in February 2020. They will perform and sing again at the concert on Sunday.
Photo by Carolyn Valle
Jordan Thomas-Rose will sing two poems by Robert Frost during the concert on Sunday: “The Road Not Taken” and “Fire and Ice”.
Photo by Craig Silberman

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