Songs and more Songs

Entry begun in my NKU office, Friday, October 3, 3 pm

Last night I got a glimpse of what awaits us in February.  I heard the voice we will hear in the song recital that will anchor our Emily Dickinson Valentine’s Festival.  I heard Kimberly Gelbwasser sing four songs that Andre Previn set to poems by Toni Morrison and scored for soprano, cello, and piano.  The four songs concluded a concert in which the Corbett Trio, artists in residence at NKU, made music with selected guest artists   Cellist Amy Gillingham recruited KimberlyGelbwasser and Elena Kholodova to join her in the Previn set of Morrison songs, and the emotion they created was felt throughout our Greaves Concert Hall.

kimberly coming onstage oct 2 no 2

Kimberly Gelbwasser, Amy Gillingham, and Elena Kholodova on stage to perform Andre Previn’s four Toni Morrison Songs

Kimberly, dressed in black, conveyed the consciousness of the poems before she sang a note.  Her focus was inward, not on the audience, though she later told me she was aware of who was there.  The four Morrison poems—“Mercy,” “Stones,” “Shelter,” and “The Lacemaker”—were written specifically for the project with Previn.  They are lacking in narrative line, overloaded with floating, probing emotion.  Kimberly sang each from the inside out, creating strength and beauty from a crucible of pain, deeply enhanced by the vigorous, expressive playing of Amy and Elena.  The voice has much to do in all four of these songs, but the cello and piano add to the musical narrative in episodes between the vocal moments.  Kimberly’s voice is emotive in a soulful, unshowy way.  She brought the most out of each of the four songs, and I can’t wait to hear her sing the Dickinson songs by Heggie and Copland in February.

A highly energized audience stayed to great the artists in the lobby after the performance.  These included a lot of young school kids who are part of the Corbett Trio’s outreach initiative.  (Amy’s colleagues in the Corbett Trio are Frank Retesan, violin, and Holly Attar, viola.)  For several decades we had no true concert hall on this campus—and very few programs for training young musicians in the schools.  This year, with the three members of the Corbett Trio joined by soprano Kimberly Gelbwasser and tenor Jason Vest on our music faculty, the future of the department, and of music throughout northern Kentucky, looks stronger than ever.  One of the excited people waiting to greet Kimberly in the lobby was Kris Yohe, a Toni Morrison scholar in our English department.  I was sitting between her and Jason Vest as Kimberly sang and it was a beautiful thing to feel how deeply all three of us were responding to each of the four songs.

Kimberly Gelbwasser and Kris Yohe in the lobby after the concert

Kimberly Gelbwasser and Kris Yohe in the lobby after the concert

One delightful surprise last night was seeing my literature student Matt Ruiz in line right behind me was I as buying my ticket.  When I asked why he came, he introduced me to his girlfriend Taylor, whom I had not met before.  She is a soprano and a student with Jason Vest.  She is a senior and will be singing a recital here in Greaves Hall on Monday, November 3.  It just so happens that two of the songs she will sing are from Aaron Copland’s Dickinson cycle.  This will be a fine prelude to Kimberly singing the entire Copland set in the same hall in February.  Matt will himself be in the spotlight in February, as he is one of my Emily Dickinson students whose art will be on display in the exhibition that is the occasion for the February concert.  He is one of the few literature students who will also have a work in the Moby-Dick exhibition in Covington in April.  As we awaited last night’s concert, Matt and Taylor let me take a photo of them in their seats, which in itself is a fine anticipation of  Valentine’s.

Taylor and Matt and the Corbett Trio concerto on October 2, 2014

Taylor Ross and Matt Ruiz at the Corbett Trio concerto on October 2, 2014

It’s hard to top last night for one great moment after another, but we had some good ones at lunch today too.  Doug Pew is a composer at NKU who got wind of the Dickinson concert planned for February.  He asked if there would be room in the program for him to compose some new Dickinson songs, and Kimberly and Ingrid loved the idea, so today Doug and Kimberly and I had lunch to discuss this, joined by tenor Jason Vest.

I love talking with musicians—especially when all three are as personable and capable as these.  Doug had been doing his homework for a few days since the idea had been approved, consulting with his librettist in Poland as well as exploring things locally and online.  He had found Johnson’s edition of Dickinson’s Complete Poems for a ridiculously cheap price on Kindle, and had already cruised through the 1775 poems to see which appealed the most.  He came to our lunch with an “A” list, a “B” list, and a “C” list, all of which sounded good to me.  He seemed equally drawn to the erotic, the landscape, and the religious poems.  If he has time, he would like to write a song cycle to balance out those by Heggie and Copland on the program.

No more than one hour after our lunch, Doug sent Kimberly and me a list of six poems he would like to try to set, beginning with “My River runs to thee” (J 162) and “The Mountain sat upon the Plain” (J 975).  How wonderful to think of another musician giving voice and accompaniment to these and other Dickinson poems, premiered by Kimberly and Ingrid, two musicians I have met for the first time this year!  Who says that life can’t start at 70!  I guess that goes back to the Dickinson quote in which Heggie found the title for the Dickinson cycle Kimberly will be singing in February, “We turn not older with the years, but newer every day.”  This quote is from a letter Dickinson wrote to Louisa Norcross in 1872, and it is preceded by this statement: “Affection is like bread, unnoticed till we starve, and then we dream of it, and sing of it, and paint it” (Johnson, Letter 379).

Yesterday as I was getting ready to upload this entry into the blog, I got another fine Dickinson surprise.  Brian Morris was a student in my Dickinson and James class in 2005.  I had lost touch with him but I was trying to find him to tell him about the upcoming exhibition and related activities in February.  It turns out he was right here on campus, finishing his last year of law school as editor-in-chief of the Chase Law Review.  We met in my office yesterday and he was reunited with his wonderful artwork from the classroom nine years ago.  Brian’s I cannot see my soul but know ’tis there represents the famous daguerreotype of Dickinson in the white space he left untouched on the sheet of paper on which he had copied out, in a tiny hand in colored pencil, his favorite Dickinson poems.

Brian Morris with his tribute to Dickinson, I cannot see my soul but know tis there,

Brian Morris with his tribute to Dickinson, I cannot see my soul but know ’tis there,



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