Tonight, April 15th, at the Walton Arts Center, 7 p.m., the public will hear two world premieres composed by Augusta Read Thomas, McIlroy Family Visiting Professor in Performing and Visual Arts at the University of Arkansas.
The first premiere on the program, love (with brightness of peace) will be performed by 465 Fayetteville Public School second graders, who will sing and perform on instruments they made themselves. Ms. Thomas is excited about this opportunity for the students to involve themselves in so many aspects of music-making. Since her arrival in Northwest Arkansas earlier this week, she has made visits to every elementary school in the city to personally rehearse with the students. The Thursday morning rehearsal at Vandergriff Elementary School was also attended by Fayetteville Public School’s Superintendent Vicki Thomas. Vandergriff’s music teacher, MeMe Hagers, says: “Collaborating with the University of Arkansas, the Walton Arts Center and our guest composer Augusta Read Thomas, has been such a fantastic experience for the second grade students in Fayetteville. The children have found such joy in making their own instruments and are so excited to perform. We are very thankful for this wonderful opportunity!”
University of Arkansas faculty and students have also warmly embraced the opportunity to work with a composer of this caliber. Ms. Thomas has previously written new compositions for some of the most talented musicians in the world, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Tonight the University of Arkansas Schola Cantorum, Master Chorale and the University Symphony Orchestra will give the world premiere of ‘Floating Temples.’ UA Professor Dr. Dale Warren, director of the Wind Symphony says, “Augusta is one of the most incredible artists I have ever worked with. Her music is vibrant, exciting, extremely well-crafted, and my players have adored her. She has an amazing personality, is very accommodating and extremely collegial. She is one of the most “excited about music” people I have ever met, and I cherish any time I can be in her presence.”
Taylor Sitzman, a senior music major with an emphasis in french horn, is playing on the premiere of ‘Floating Temples’ tonight with the University Symphony Orchestra. He is excited about the performance. He says, “It is the first time I get to play a piece commissioned for ‘me’. It has also been a good experience to work with the choir ensembles. It isn’t that often that the instrumental and choral ensembles get together to collaborate on a work.” He described the french horn part: “At first it was difficult to figure out, but then we got the hang of it and it really locked in. I’m looking forward to tonight’s performance, it will be a lot of fun.” He said that the part had “difficult passages in the high register and very technical rhythms” with some sections for ‘stopped horn,’ which is an extended technique for his instrument. Initially the orchestra and choir rehearsed separately, but when the groups came together, Taylor felt that he was “able to grasp what the piece was about and how it was supposed to sound.” Earlier in the week, Ms. Thomas also described the choir and orchestra parts as very integrated.
When Ms. Thomas was approached about a commission at almost the same time by both the University of Arkansas and the University of South Florida (the work is co-commissioned), she began to think about what to write. For the U of A, she thought about Arkansas and the setting, and what music would work here. She originally searched for a text by an Arkansas poet, and considered setting something by Mr. Fulbright, but found that most of his writing was oration, for speeches, rather than poetry, so she turned to a poet she first discovered over twenty years ago, Bashō. The text of ‘Floating Temples’ is made up of fragments of two poems by Bashō (1644-1694) and Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), but the Haiku and the poem have both been rearranged and created into a ‘wholly new lyric’ by the composer. Ms. Thomas spoke to students this week about her compositional process. She described it as inspired, but also as work. “It doesn’t just come out, like Mozart, it is hard work,” she said, “Yet it feels like the music passes through me, as if another life-force is writing it.” She feels that we all have something to give to each other from that life-force and in her case part of what she has to give is sound, music. Initially, Ms. Thomas arranged the texts into seasons, but later felt drawn instead to capture the poetic images. The astute listener will find these images woven artfully throughout the work. For instance, at the beginning of ‘Floating Temples’ the listener will hear the words, “pitter patter/petals of tiny flowers drop/a waterfall of sound” and that connects to the penultimate text ”the temple bell stops/but the sound keeps coming/out of the flowers.” Ms. Thomas explained that the poetic images and the music give rise to the compositional techniques, therefore the sounds that the listener hears have meaning and do not exist simply to show off the technique of either the composer or performer.
Tonight’s performance is the result of the hard work of the composer, the students and faculty at the University of Arkansas and the teachers and students and parents of the Fayetteville Public Schools, as well as many supporters who contributed to making this event possible.