Musicians and Poets Work Together for Concert

Instrument ensemble from left to right: Joan Griffing, Diane Phoenix-Neal, Beth Vanderborgh, Les Nicholas. Not picture, Anne Waltner.

Instrument ensemble from left to right: Joan Griffing, Diane Phoenix-Neal, Beth Vanderborgh, Les Nicholas. Not picture, Anne Waltner.

What do you get when you combine Music faculty with Lang. & Lit. faculty outside of the classroom? An evening of captivating music intricately combined with intriguing poetry. Musica Harmonia, an instrumental ensemble including violinist and EMU Music Dept. chair Joan Griffing, violist Diane Phoenix-Neal, cellist Beth Vanderborgh, clarinetist Les Nicholas, and pianist Anne Waltner gave a beautiful concert featuring music from well-known composer Dr. Gwyneth Walker in Martin Chapel on Jan. 11.

The program began with Walker’s “Letters to the World—reflections on the poetry of Emily Dickinson,” an arrangement of five short pieces for piano quartet: “Invocation,” “Spring,” “Nobody!—or The Frog Pond,” “Passion,” and “Indian Summer.” Before each piece, former EMU English professor Jay Landis read the Dickenson poem that each piece was based on.

Sophomore Amanda Olsen added that the music changed her perspective on Emily Dickinson’s poem “I’m Nobody!”

“The way they played it, they made it sound more playful; it wasn’t so much depressing as it was kind of funny, and now when I read those poems I hear the music in my head.”

Sophomore Luisa Miller appreciated this combination of music and poetry by saying, “The music is more image-oriented; it makes you think more about what’s going on in the song because of the connection to the poetry.”

Senior Chloe Raber, a music performance major, added to this idea. “It made me think more about what the music was trying to say because, a lot of the time, when you listen to a musical piece, it doesn’t have the specific meaning that it’s trying to get across. It’s interesting to see how the composer was trying to match the music to the poetry.”

The next piece that Musica Harmonia performed was a piano trio composition entitled “A Vision of Hills.” Although poemless, it was an exquisite arrangement, beginning and ending with a version of the traditional hymn “Be Thou My Vision.” Raber remarked that it was her favorite piece of the night.

The second half of the program was just as interesting, and perhaps more moving. “The Peacemakers,” composed by Walker in 2012, is a chamber music arrangement combined with narrative poems written by Marti Eads, associate professor of English at EMU, from Leymah Gbowee’s book “Mighty Be Our Powers.” Eads’s poems were read by Margaret Foth, Barbra Graber, Helen Nafziger, and Trina Trotter Nussbaum. The poetry reading and music were beautifully intertwined.

When asked what inspired her to compose a work which included the writings of Leymah Gbowee, Walker replied, “In the summers, Eastern Mennonite University hosts the Bach Musical Festival and the Peace Institute.

These two groups share the campus, although their activities are completely separate. It was my hope to create a new work which might be relevant to both groups.”

Referring to her poetry, Eads stated, “My primary goal in adapting the material from Ms. Gbowee’s book was to be as faithful to her language as I could be, and I loved the way the readers brought her words to life.”

She also added, “I enjoyed the program very much and found the readers’ interpretation of the poetry intensely moving. Helen, Margaret, Trina, and Barbra brought remarkable energy and sensitivity to the text.” This sentiment was shared by Junior Heather Evans, who commented that she liked how the poets used rhythm and repetition to make the poetry musical.

“Leymah Gbowee is someone that I really admire a lot,” Evans said, “so the fact that my writing professor wrote poetry based on her, and then a really awesome composer that I knew of put music to my writing professor’s poetry—that was pretty cool.”

Griffing also explained her personal connection to this music. “This project tied in with my sabbatical, looking at ways music and peace-building can connect in a current context. The Peacemakers is a musical depiction of the life of Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee. It brings to light her struggles and achievements through a musical setting.”

Eads described the project by saying, “The Peacemakers marries music and writing to celebrate activism in an exciting way.”

The final piece was another of Walker’s instrumental selections, called “A Cup of Rejoicing.” It was a joyous, uplifting composition based on a Shaker song by the same name.

One reason this performance was so special is that the composer herself was present that evening and introduced each piece.

When asked about her role in guiding the performance, Walker said, “I traveled to Harrisonburg several days in advance of our concert. Therefore, I was able to rehearse each of the four works with Musica Harmonia. Although the players themselves often focused on their musical interaction, my role was usually to comment on dynamics and tempo. As I recall, I had very few comments that related to details not already written in the music.

“Yet still, with limited rehearsal time, having the guidance of the composer helps speed along the process.”

Griffing, from the perspective of a performer, said, “It is a real privilege to get to collaborate with a composer. As we are recording this music in June, this time together was invaluable.”

Experiencing such collaboration among the poets, composer, readers, and musicians is a real treat. Griffing explains this idea well by saying that “when people from a variety of disciplines work together, unique works can be created that may influence and reach a diverse audience.”

-Jacinda Stahly, Copy Editor


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