Mission: to seek and share inspiration

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Equality, Forgive, Elegy: Guideposts For Freedom


Meghan Berneking

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In a social, political and cultural climate where discourse is often reduced to argument, authentic community dialogue can be hard to come by. Now in its fourth year, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s One City, One Symphony initiative uses iconic works of orchestral music to seek just that. What began as a celebration of Louis Langrée’s appointment as Music Director and modeled after successful library reading programs has since tackled heavy themes of fate, redemption and heroism through the lens of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mahler. This year’s theme, freedom (see page 19 for more on the theme), takes on greater significance as it also honors the legacy of Dr. Maya Angelou, who narrated Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with the CSO in what would be one of her final artistic projects before her passing in 2014.

Thus, for the first time, the One City, One Symphony concert program pairs the world premieres of commissioned works with Dvořák’s popular Ninth Symphony, sparking not only renewed interest in a beloved symphony, but also fruitful community discussion about the sometimes difficult topics represented in the poems.

The CSO commissioned three up and coming composers—Jonathan Bailey Holland, Kristin Kuster and TJ Cole—to write short works based on poems by Dr. Angelou (“Equality,” “Forgive” and “Elegy,” respectively). Each composer brought his or her personal experiences, styles and methods to the composition process, from which emerged three unique pieces honoring the legacy of one of the most poignant voices of our time. Each composer shared insights into these new works.

What was your starting point for this composition?
Cole: Aside from becoming more familiar with Dr. Angelou as an artist, I memorized the poem “Elegy” to get it imprinted in my mind. And because I’m a visually inclined person, I made a few drawings in response to the poem.
Holland: There is a persistence and assuredness to the tone of the poem that I connected with instantly, and the repeated references to drums and rhythms were not only an obvious choice from a musical perspective, but also seemed emblematic of what the struggle for equality is about. It is a poem that is as relevant today as at any other point in history.
Kuster: My first goal was to figure out how I could be sure the poem is understood. When I decided to have the speaker recite the poem in its entirety, three times, the structure of the music became more clear.

What should audience members listen for in this piece?
Kuster: Throughout, the music for the orchestra does what the poem does, in that it grows more intricate, more poignant, more heavy, the more we hear and understand the poem.
Holland: The imagery of drums marking time by beating unceasingly resonated immediately with me, and while there is not a consistent drum cadence throughout the work, there is a definite pulse that drives the music. Mostly, I wanted to provide a sonic landscape that captured my perspective of the proper aesthetic to accompany the listener through the energy of poem.

Was there anything in the poetry itself that had personal resonance with you?
Kuster: This notion of forgiveness. I feel forgiveness is the greatest, most compassionate thing we can do for others.

TJ, you have been studying with Jennifer Higdon at Curtis, who has also had an advising role in this project. What was it like working with her for this commission?
Cole: It was good for me to have a familiar someone around while working on this project, especially since this is really my first commission with a professional orchestra. She’s been very successful with orchestras, so I learned quite a few things from studying under her, including orchestration techniques, creating scores and parts that clearly state the composer’s ideas, and not being afraid to take risks.

Jonathan, you’ve composed music for the CSO before; how does this orchestra’s strengths and style play into your composition process?
Holland: I feel incredibly fortunate and honored every time I have the privilege to write for and work with the CSO. Every performance of my music by the CSO has been more amazing than I could have imagined. I feel as though they capture exactly what I envision each time.

How did the figure and legacy of Dr. Maya Angelou play into your composition process?
Kuster: Dr. Angelou and her work are an utter gift to our culture. It is an honor and a privilege to set one of her poems. What I love most about her poems are the ways in which she expresses things that are often difficult to talk about, with beautifully delicate and elegant language.

Where do you seek and find inspiration?
Cole: I try to find inspiration in all things, but am recently finding myself most inspired by other artists who are fearless in expressing themselves. Ones that I can think of off the top of my head end up mostly being musicians, but include the pop star Sia, Annie Clark of St. Vincent, my brother Julian Cole, the band Nirvana, Jack White, Time for Three, Rebecca Sugar and so many others, but those are the first that come to mind. Their fearlessness of expression inspires me both musically and in life.
Kuster: I love how it feels to look at great architectural design, to be near any body of water, to be under and look at trees, and to be with the people I love.
Holland: Inspiration is a broad concept. It can come from anywhere, and at any time. For me, composition is about reinterpreting the world as I experience it. That can mean many different things. I have written works inspired by paintings by Jackson Pollock. I have set poetry written by William Blake, Walt Whitman and Sandra Cisneros to music. I have written works about architecture, cold temperatures, and even musical works written by others. Inspiration can be found easily. The crafting of inspiration into a musical composition is the challenge.

—Meghan Berneking