Fruitful Collaboration Brings about the World Premiere of the Orchestral Song Setting of My Poem “Thorn Tree”

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The opening measures of Jacob Reed’s orchestral song setting of my poem “Thorn Tree.”

After months and months of preparation, dozens of conversations, a bevy of emails, and a whirlwind of ideas catalyzed by an inspiring and fruitful creative collaboration, the orchestral song setting of my poem “Thorn Tree” was given its world premiere along with those of two other new orchestral songs yesterday afternoon at the McConnell Arts Center in Worthington.

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Antoine Clark conducts members of the McConnell Arts Center Chamber Orchestra in William Walton’s Façade Suite No. 2, while I recite Edith Sitwell’s offbeat poetic texts.

The song settings were composed by Columbus composer Jacob Reed as part of “The Poet’s Song,” a project Reed created to unite poems and music in new art songs.

On a concert program entitled “The Words Beneath the Sound,” featuring musical works with sung or spoken texts, McConnell Arts Center Chamber Orchestra artistic and music director Antoine Clark conducted the world premieres of Reed’s songs, the world premiere of Christopher Weait’s orchestral song settings of Emily Dickinson poems Emily’s Bees and Bells, Walton’s Façade Suite No. 2 – with poetry by Edith Sitwell, and, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of its world premiere, Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, with a text adaptation I wrote specially for this performance. Soprano Chelsea Hart Melcher was featured as soloist in the Reed and Weait songs, and, in my role as midday host of WOSU Public Media’s Classical 101, I narrated the Walton and the Stravinsky.

Stravinsky Soldier
I narrate my own text adaptation of Stravinsky’s iconic L’Histoire du Soldat with members of the McConnell Arts Center Chamber Orchestra.

Funded jointly by the Johnstone Fund for New Music, the McConnell Arts Center of Worthington, and the Worthington Educational Foundation, “The Poet’s Song” project brought together many throughout the Worthington community.

As a guest artist, I worked with Thomas Worthington High School students on reading and writing poetry in two class visits. Students were also encouraged to participate in a poetry contest, which was judged by other members of the Worthington community, and the winner of which had his poem set to music by Reed and performed in yesterday’s concert. Poems by all of the MACCO programentrants in the school poetry contest were displayed along with musical sketches by Reed and Weait, on a “Wall for Sharing” in the lobby at the MAC. The project’s culminating performance, “The Words Beneath the Sound,” yesterday at the McConnell Arts Center brought a rich program of poetry and music before the Worthington community.

This project hit home deeply with me. I grew up in Worthington and attended the Worthington Schools, and I know how committed this community is to quality in education and cultural enrichment. Yesterday’s concert brought a rich offering of poetry and music before the Worthington community in combinations that had never before been experienced in that way. I left the performance with the feeling that we all had experienced something unique and exciting.

From its dissonant opening “thorn” chord to its intentionally unsettled conclusion, Reed’s setting of my poem “Thorn Tree,” like his settings of the poems by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi and Worthington student poet Nat Hickman he selected for “The Poet’s Song,” explores the text’s emotional depth in rich, dramatic harmonies and sparkling orchestral color.

My deep gratitude to composer Jacob Reed for believing in my poem “Thorn Tree” enough to give it this sumptuous orchestral setting, to Antoine Clark for bringing me into “The Poet’s Song” project, and to the staff of the McConnell Arts Center for making the center an inspiring locus of creativity.

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Christoper Weait, me, Antoine Clark, Chelsea Hart Melcher, and Jacob Reed onstage in the McConnell Arts Center’s Bronwyn Theatre.  Photo: Jon Cook

A Standing Ovation for the Ohio Premiere of Melissa Dunphy’s Song Cycle “Hervararkviða”

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Photo: Søren Niedziella/Creative Commons/Flickr

It was a great honor to sing the Ohio premiere of Philadelphia-based composer Melissa Dunphy’s song set Hervararkviða – The Incantation of Hervor – with harpist Jeanne Norton and violinist Laura Koh Sunday afternoon at Capital University’s Huntington Recital Hall, Columbus.

Commissioned by mezzo-soprano Maren Montalbano for her recording Sea Tangle: Songs from the North, the three songs in Hervararkviða tell the story of Hervor, a young Viking woman who dresses up like a man, changes her name to its male equivalent – Hervarth, and leaves her village to journey to the burial mound where her father was laid to rest after dying in battle and claim his sword as her birthright.

Scored for Montalbano’s specified instrumentation, Dunphy’s songs treat the voice and each of the instruments in unconventional ways to stunning dramatic effect.  They are an extraordinary contribution to the art song repertory.

Yesterday’s performance of Hervararkviða was presented by Women in Music Columbus and was the conclusion of a concert consisting of works selected from among those submitted in response to Women in Music Columbus’ biennial Call for Scores from women composers.

I was greatly touched by yesterday’s generous audience, which gave our performance of these incredible songs a standing ovation.

For more about Hervararkviða, listen to my interview with Melissa Dunphy which I conducted for Classical 101, WOSU Public Media.

My collaborators and I are planning future performances of these songs.  Keep watching Inner Voices for details.

A Poetry Commission and an Exciting New Project from the Johnstone Fund for New Music

Toshiyuki Imai Music Sheet
Photo: Toshiyuki Imai/Creative Commons/Flickr

I am extremely excited to announce my most recent poetry commission and an invitation to participate in an innovative project to catalyze the creation of new musical works with poetry.

The Big SCORE, a project created and funded by the Johnstone Fund for New Music, pairs six Columbus poets with six Columbus composers, each pair tasked to collaborate on the creation of a new work for chamber ensemble and spoken or sung text.

I am thrilled to be one of The Big SCORE’s invited poets and to have been paired with the phenomenal composer and percussionist Mark Lomax. The other artists invited to contribute to the project are poets Louise Robertson, Jeremy Glazier, Barbara Fant, Dionne Custer Edwards, and Scott Woods, and composers Jennifer Merkowitz, Linda Kernohan, Jennifer Jolley, Michael Torres, and Charlie Wilmoth.

The new works will be premiered in Columbus in spring 2019. I am deeply grateful to Zoe Johnstone for inviting me to participate in this extraordinary project.

“Words and Music” Talk Launches National League of American Pen Women, Central Ohio Branch Guest Speaker Series

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Guest speaker Jennifer Hambrick with members of the Central Ohio Branch of the National League of American Pen Women, L to R: branch president Darlene Yeager-Torre, Hambrick, Mary Hoffman, Deborah Anderson, vice president Margaret Hanna and membership chair Rosalie Ungar.

I am greatly honored to have been invited to kick off the 2017-18 speaker series of the Central Ohio Branch of the National League of American Pen Women Tuesday evening. This amazing group of women artists put on a classy event at the Upper Arlington Public Library and could not have been more welcoming or more gracious.

Based in Washington, D.C., the National League of American Pen Women (NLAPW, or “Pen Women,” for short) is a venerable organization comprised of women artists in all mediums working throughout the U.S.

I was asked to talk about my multiple careers in music and letters, including my work as midday host and music director for WOSU Public Media’s Classical 101 radio station; my work writing about classical music for print, broadcast and online media; my career as a poet and my work as a performing singer.

For me, the highlights of the evening were meeting some of the chapter members in the “preception” before my talk, and having a chance to chat a bit more and enjoy some photo ops with them afterwards.

It was especially wonderful to see Mary Hoffman (pictured to my right in the photo above), one of my predecessors in my role as Classical 101 music director.  Mary was music director of WOSU Public Media’s classical music radio station when I was a teenager in Columbus and listening to that station every day.  Her work inspired me in innumerable ways, and I feel a special honor to carry her torch forward.

These talented and generous ladies sent me home with vase of gorgeous roses (!) and an invitation to join their group. But most importantly, they reminded me what a tremendous privilege it is to work in creative careers and to be inspired by the gifted artists who make Columbus’ vibrant arts scene what it is.

My thanks to branch president Darlene Yeager-Torre, Deborah Anderson and all of the members of the Central Ohio Branch of the National League of American Pen Women for the great honor to share my work and my story with you.

Newly Commissioned Poem Transfigures Arnold Schoenberg’s Pivotal Chamber Music Work “Transfigured Night”

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VIVO Music Festival 2016 at the Columbus Museum of Art, Derby Court (Photo: Courtesy of the VIVO Music Festival)

I am greatly honored to have received a commission from the VIVO Music Festival to write a poem in response to Arnold Schoenberg’s pivotal string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), and to present my new poem in its world-premiere reading Thursday evening at the Columbus Museum of Art.

Under the creative leadership of its founders and co-artistic directors Siwoo Kim and John Stulz, the VIVO Music Festival brings world-class musicians to Columbus, Ohio, for one week each summer for performances of great chamber music repertory in venues all around the city. In its third season, the 2017 festival will feature Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht Thurs., Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. in the Columbus Museum of Art’s Derby Court.

In keeping with the theme of Thursday’s concert – “VIVO Transfigured” – Stulz asked me to write a poem that would respond to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and also update the poem of the same title by German poet Richard Dehmel that inspired Schoenberg’s work – in short, to transfigure Transfigured Night.

The task of composing my new poem was exciting and daunting. Delving into and gleaning inspiration from the rich philosophical and cultural contexts in which Dehmel and Schoenberg worked was exhilarating. At the same time, in fulfilling the commission, I was fully aware that my new poem would become, if only in a small way, still nothing less than a part of the history of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.

I will present my new poem “on a cold sea we travel” in its world-premiere reading at Thursday’s concert, as an introduction to the musicians’ performance of Schoenberg’s work. The reading and the performance will be live streamed on Facebook.

My hope is that, when heard before Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, “on a cold sea we travel” will set the stage for experiencing the philosophical and sonic richness of Schoenberg’s music in a uniquely musical way. I took the idea of traveling on a cold sea as much from my experience of hearing Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, with its dramatic waves of sound in continuous ebb and flow, as from the particular line in Dehmel’s poem that the title of my poem paraphrases. In an effort to preserve the essential philosophical resonances of Dehmel’s poem, in “on a cold sea we travel” I have aimed to convey an apotheosis that is truly universal – shared by poet and all who experience the poem. I’ve also conceived the surface music of the poem – the alliteration, assonance, and rhythms of the words – to serve as a special kind of gateway into listeners’ experience of Schoenberg’s work.

My extreme gratitude to John Stulz, Siwoo Kim, and the VIVO Music Festival for this singular honor, and to the Ohio Arts Council for funding in support of the commission.

Reclaim the Stage: Conquering Performance Anxiety – Part One: Fear and Perfectionism

Photo: Lee Adlaf (Creative Commons/Flickr)

Recently, I gave a performance of a few opera arias with David Thomas, the principal clarinetist with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, and pianist Orlay Alonso, piano faculty at Capital University and half of the Alonso Brothers Piano Duo. You can listen to our performances in the unedited audio files below.

The fact of this performance is, in itself, not really news. But what is potentially of enough value to be shared, is what I learned from giving this performance about dealing with performance anxiety.

The stage can be a cold and lonely place when you know you have it in you to perform well, but can’t manage to get the best of yourself out before an audience. I know this feeling well. And while I make no claim to be any sort of expert in managing performance anxiety, I do claim to be an expert in my own experience with performance anxiety. Hopefully, sharing what I’ve learned about why debilitating performance anxiety happens and how to deal with it can be of help to you and others.

I’ll cover various topics related to performance anxiety in a series of posts published over the next several weeks. In this installment, I take a hard look at the roles of fear and its demon spawn, perfectionism.

Fear: Acknowledge It. Then Request That It Kindly Go to Hell.

It’s my belief, though not mine alone, that performance anxiety has its roots in fear, and often some kind of extremely deeply rooted fear that goes way, way back to our childhoods. I’m by no stretch a psychologist, but common sense dictates that it’s important to look those fears straight in the eye and deal with them. Some seek the guidance of a licensed psychologist for this, others choose not to. But if you’re going to open the Pandora’s Box of your psyche, then be prepared for something strange and probably hairy to fly out at you. And if being “prepared” means that you enlist the use of someone’s professional chops to supplement your own moxie, then that’s what you do.

In the sense that fears are realities in our nervous systems and in our lives, all fears, especially deeply rooted ones, are legitimate. When we’re kids, we develop all kinds of fears because we have few, if any, emotional and intellectual resources to deal with the various and sundry thing about the world that we don’t understand.

Sometimes fears developed in childhood become patterns of belief, habits formed (maybe in an effort to give the rational mind some “reason” why a deep emotional wounds have happened) that we hold onto as we age and even take with us into adulthood.

Here’s a common narrative among creative types, including performers like musicians, dancers, and actors: You were a shy, quiet kid and not exactly Mr. or Miss Popularity with the kids at school. You grew up thinking that people don’t like you. And even though you’re now an adult with a spouse or significant other, with a family, with friends, with good professional relationships, there might still be this little voice that taunts to you in, as Yeats called it, the deep heart’s core: “People don’t like you. They don’t like what you do.”

Imagine trying to step out onstage and dazzle a crowd of people when you’re carrying with you the idea – the fear from long ago – that people don’t like you.

That’s just one specific example. But if I had to guess why so many well-trained musicians and other types of performers are completely derailed by performance anxiety, I might guess that they haven’t ventured down the rabbit hole of their own psyches and debunked the myth that they can’t be appreciated just as themselves, without having to earn affirmation by performing, like a trained monkey, tremendous feats of derring-do.

Perfectionism: That’s Kind of Unreasonable, Don’t You Think?

Anyone who performs in any sense – including giving musical performances, dancing, delivering speeches, litigating in court, speaking up at a staff meeting at work, etc. – knows that it takes a phenomenal level of skill to “wow” an audience.

So if you’re a musician, achieving this “wow” standard can, if left unchecked, result in the compulsion to spend insane amounts of time in the practice room. If you’re a dancer, you might train yourself to the point of physical breakdown.

This kind of drive to perfection can also result in a debilitating sense that, unless you deliver a “wow” performance every time, you’ll never be able to hack it, whatever “it” may be.

Let’s look at why you believe you must deliver only “wow” performances. Let’s say you were the kid who decided to believe early on that no one liked you, and then discovered that when you played the trombone well, or danced well, or did a great job in the school play, people actually clapped for you.

See the connection? You’re trying to overcome the myth of your own social inadequacy by way of performance success. Essentially, you’re trying to succeed your way into being loved. Only for a little while will you be able to trick yourself into thinking that you’re getting what you need. But applause for a good performance does not equal the kind of genuine appreciation and respect – love, really – that the inaccurate tiny voice within you is telling you you’re not getting and won’t get. Eventually this approach will completely break down until you deal with the limiting belief at the root of your compulsion.

Musicians, dancers, and others in ridiculously competitive creative fields frequently say (and believe) that they must deliver “wow” performances every single time because there’s always someone waiting in the wings to step into their spotlight. If the only thing you consider is the numbers game involved in any competitive field, that well may be true.

But equally true is this: You have the right to decide how and with whom you do your business. Surround yourself with collaborators who will respect what you bring to an enterprise – your skill, your artistry, and most importantly, your human dignity. People who respect your personhood wont subtly or not so subtly guilt or threaten you into burning yourself out or working yourself to the point of physical injury or emotional harm.

Seek out supportive colleagues who have a desire to work only in the realm of positivity. Mentor each other to be the best you can be. Let the joy that comes from working in that kind of creative freedom exude through your performance and infect your audience. That’s a “wow” performance.

Many years ago I spoke with a sports psychologist who had worked with one of the U.S. Olympic ski teams. The team had convened for training, and the psychologist asked them to watch videos of several downhill ski runs skied by other elite athletes on the international circuit. He then asked the skiers to critique what they saw. Not one of the assembled skiers saw a single “perfect” run among the batch of videos, among the elite skiers who had won many major international events year after year, and whose game they were trying to best.

The moral to this story: Be reasonable with yourself. If the thrill of chasing unicorns really does do something positive for you to help make you the very best version of yourself that you can be, then persist in your drive for global musical/dancing/public speaking domination. But if trying to give the perfect performance every single time is turning you into a frustrated, neurotic mess and getting in the way of your being able to deliver solid performances that are representative of your abilities and that you enjoy giving, then please, for the love of God, stop it.

The perfect is the enemy of the good, of the very good, and certainly of the excellent.

Next week we’ll talk about asking permission, something a happy performer never, ever does.

Cypress Swansong

Photo: Basil Childers/Cypress String Quartet Website

In my work as midday host and broadcast producer for WOSU Public Media’s Classical 101 radio station, I have had interviewed countless world-class classical musicians at pivotal moments in their careers.

Recently, I spoke with members of the Cypress String Quartet, just a few days before the group performed its farewell concert at San Francisco’s War Memorial, disbanding after two decades on the international stage.

Read my story about the Cypress Quartet’s swansong, and take a listen to my interview with now former Cypress String Quartet violinist Tom Stone and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel for Classical 101. Or listen to the interview here:

The Cypress Quartet’s story is quite interesting. Many top-drawer musicians form quartets with an eye toward someday performing the monumental cycle of Beethoven’s quartets. But the Cypress formed specifically to work on Beethoven’s quartets, and did just that from Day One, developing a reputation – a brand, if you will – as a “Beethoven” quartet of their 20-year career.

This legacy lives on in the Cypress Quartet’s acclaimed recordings of the complete Beethoven string quartets, and elsewhere in the ensemble’s discography.