I can get a little cornball sometimes when it comes to inserting musical-theater lyrics into my life experiences. But I’ll share this anyway. As I sat Thursday night watching and listening to Fresno Grand Opera’s vibrant “Music & Verse” program unfold, I couldn’t help but think of these words from the musical “RENT”:
The opposite of war isn’t peace …
That text seemed appropriate in conjunction with this admirable and intriguing event. Lots of arts organizations talk the talk when it comes to collaboration, but Fresno Grand Opera is also showing us it knows how to run, not just walk. “Music & Verse,” which brought together members of Fresno’s Inner Ear Poetry Slam, music composition majors from Fresno State and a sterling ensemble of professional musicians, managed to create something special on Thursday. Seven something specials, actually, in the form of original art songs.
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The collaboration between poets and composers wasn’t war, of course, but like any worthwhile artistic endeavor, I’m sure it also sparked some moments of creative tension. That’s what art is all about. While I didn’t fall in love with all these new pieces, I certainly appreciated them. This was a grand experiment, and it was worth it. I found myself time and again during the program saluting the idea of collaboration in our community.
Introductions. Both the student composer and poet for each piece got up before the audience in the Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium to introduce it. I enjoyed hearing both perspectives. Some of the composers offered insights about how they approached the project from a musical perspective, and I found this fascinating. I wish all had decided to do so. It was also very effective for each poet to read his or her piece before it was played, because then we got a sense of the poem’s original bones.
The ensemble. A chamber orchestra made up of members of the Fresno Grand Opera orchestra played the student works. (Which was quite an honor and privilege for these composers.) The opera’s Ryan Murray conducted with his usual aplomb, and soprano Liisa Davila, mezzo Nicole Jacques and tenor Jonathan Smucker were first-rate. The orchestra was probably a little too large both for the space and the scale of the works, with the flute and horn at times drowning out the singers. But, again, having such a robust ensemble of musicians added to the impact of the evening.
The poems: They were pretty dark, which I think was probably a challenge for the composers. Themes included absent and abusive fathers, an eating disorder, the inevitable death of a flower, police brutality, mixed racial identity and the anguish of waiting for a kidney transplant. All were intense and meaningful. My favorites included Bryan Medina’s raw and potent “For death, he wore a mustache,” Aideed Medina’s lyrical “The Wilting” and Michael Medrano’s evocative “Crossfires.”
The music: I found myself thinking a lot about composer Ricky Ian Gordon’s visit to Fresno, when he worked with the student composers, and what he had to say about treating the text as a jewel that has to be exquisitely set into the song’s musical architecture. I’m not a trained contemporary composer, but the pieces that spoke the most were by Daniel Townsend and Matthew David Wheeler. In particular, Wheeler’s sweeping piece – set to an intriguing poem by Taylor Harris related to local organist Tony Imperatrice’s quest for a kidney transplant – framed the text in ways that allowed the voice to shine. The poem and song was able to take us on an emotional journey.
Overall: Again, I was impressed and moved. To think that before this year-long project began, there was nothing, and now there are seven dynamic art songs, is to salute the idea of creation itself. Thanks, Fresno Grand Opera, for such an inspired event.