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2012 WCSU professor’s song cycle to premiere in performance Oct. 15

DANBURY, CONN. — Inspired by the planned visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Western Connecticut State University, WCSU Professor of Music Eric Lewis has embarked over the past six months on a quest for the place where poetry and music converge in a song of compassionate humanity. Lewis will share the fruits of his discovery in the premiere performance of his original composition, the “Wrensong” cycle, in a chamber music concert at the university on Monday, Oct. 15, 2012.

“World Music” will be the theme for the concert at 8 p.m. in Ives Concert Hall in White Hall on the university’s Midtown campus, 181 White St. in Danbury. Admission will be free and the public is invited to attend; donations to support the WCSU department of music will be accepted.

Soprano Jennifer Caraluzzi, graduate of WCSU and the New England Conservatory (NEC) and cast member in this summer’s production by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, will perform as lead vocalist for the “Wrensong” cycle with a chamber music ensemble of string, wind, piano and percussion instrumentalists. The six-song cycle features Lewis’s musical score and lyrics drawn from the poetry of the late Raphaela Willington. The cycle, commissioned by The Judy Willington Trust, distills and sets to music six poems selected by Lewis from a collection of Willington poems titled “Elegy” soon to be published by Unbound Content LLC.

The concert will open with a movement from Gareth Farr’s “Kembang Suling: Musical Snapshots of Asia” performed by WCSU Professors of Music Dr. Kerry Walker on flute and David Smith on marimba, followed by the band Timbila performing original arrangements of African music played on traditional and Western instruments. The concert will conclude with performance of Dvorak’s “The American” Piano Quintet by the Prometheus chamber music ensemble.

WCSU Adjunct Professor of Music Dirck Westervelt, bass player for Timbila, noted the band has drawn inspiration from studies and collaboration with Zimbabwean musician Thomas Mapfumo and his band The Blacks Unlimited, who have pioneered adaptation of traditional African music for Western instruments. Timbila’s repertoire features melodic vocals and intricate interplay of guitar, bass and percussion with southern African instruments such as the mbira, a Shona thumb piano, and timbila, a type of xylophone.

“The music ranges from hypnotic and lulling mbira songs to highly energetic timbila boogie,” Westervelt explained. “Ever since the band’s founders — songwriter and mbira/timbila player Nora Balaban and guitarist Banning Eyre — met in Zimbabwe in 1997, they have been adapting these traditions to create contemporary songs deeply based in tradition, but also informed by their backgrounds in folk, rock, jazz and other kinds of African music.” Balaban, Eyre and Westervelt will be joined by percussionist Madeline Yayodele Nelson, founder of the group Women of the Calabash, in performance of a set of songs set to original arrangements of mbira pieces from Zimbabwe.

Lewis first made the musical connection to Willington’s poetry with encouragement from Connecticut State University Distinguished Professor and WCSU Professor of Writing, Linguistics and Creative Process Dr. John Briggs, a friend and literary colleague of Willington prior to her death in 2004. Briggs and Lewis, in collaboration with representatives of the Do Ngak Kunphen Ling (Tibetan Buddhist Center for Universal Peace) in Redding, put forward the initial proposal for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s visit to Danbury and have sought to promote cultural programs on campus and in the community celebrating the historic event. Once he began to immerse himself in Willington’s poetry and learn about her personal journey, Lewis said, he gained a deepening appreciation for the empathy and compassion expressed in her work — themes in harmony with the Dalai Lama’s spiritual message.

“Willington’s life story is very spiritually charged,” he observed. “When she wrote these poems, she was suffering in many ways: Her parents had died several years earlier in a terrible accident, and she was suffering from ovarian cancer. I could hear very clearly the music in her words: life in nature, memories of her parents, her own dreams, and the revelations of her Buddhist faith.”

Even as he set to work on the composition, Lewis already had decided to ask Caraluzzi, currently an instructor at NEC in Boston, to return to Western to take on the challenge of the premiere performance. In fact, he had sought an opportunity to write a song cycle for Caraluzzi since he heard her senior recital performance in 2010 of songs inspired by the poetry of Stephane Mallarme.

“The Willington poems seemed the perfect fit for Jennifer’s amazing voice — a high, coloratura soprano of unique sensitivity,” he said. “She has the voice of great compassion and empathy.” Caraluzzi’s performance of lyrics inspired by Willington’s poetry “will bring together two women of great talent from different generations who have become the muses for my music.”

Lewis’s cycle progresses through six songs inspired by Willington’s experience of the natural world, her spiritual reflections, and her observations on the human condition. The cycle begins with “Epitaph for Ashes,” and continues through “Like an Animal,” “Sometimes You Wake” and the title piece “Wrensong.” Lewis observed that his musical score seeks to capture the varied themes of the poetry, from the reflective call to compassion of “Epitaph” to the rich instrumental tone of “Animal” and the progression from dreamlike state to consciousness in “Sometimes You Wake.” Sounds of the natural world figure prominently in the song cycle, as in music recalling the singing of wrens each morning in their flower box nest outside Willington’s window.

“’Wrensong’ emerges from sleep and has bird song enter our thoughts, discussing the day,” Lewis said. “It’s really about birds from their point of view, communicating with each other.”

The fifth song in the cycle, “Memory,” draws its inspiration from a poem that seeks remembrance and order amid a cacophony of thoughts, reflected in dissonant but colorful clusters of chords and use of Caraluzzi’s soprano timber in humming that blends with the instrumental music. The cycle concludes with “The Revelation,” a song in which the poet faces her own mortality and discovers new revelations about her life and her world.

The conclusion holds special resonance for Lewis, who suffered a heart attack early this year that brought him to reevaluate his artistic work and take new directions.

“You instantly become mortal — and that’s quite a good thing,” he recalled of his illness. “It spurred me to action, to rediscover my persona as a composer, which I had put aside for so many years.” After focusing for more than four decades on his artistic career as a violinist and chamber music performer with the Manhattan String Quartet and currently Prometheus, he said, “I need to start setting down my musical ideas on paper. I want my music to be accessible so that people can be moved by it. I want people to relax into the music and hear it for what it is.”

Lewis said his approach to music composition has been revitalized by the teachings of the Dalai Lama, especially in his recent work “Beyond Religion.” In this book, he observed, His Holiness “dispels much of the cynicism I had found in the intellectual and complicated music theory of the 20th century. That has made me a seeker of a new way.”

“What would please me most” at the premiere of the “Wrensong” cycle, Lewis remarked, “is that the listeners feel connected to the performers on stage, using my vehicle to make them aware of their human side, sharing the same emotions and responding in the same ways. This piece is all about compassion for someone who is suffering and, through that suffering, finding our own human limits and possibilities. That’s what I want them to take away from this: They should be nourished by their humanity.”

For more information, contact the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.


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