[Below is my introduction to Goin' Home: Songs for Sister Lisa. I hope you will join the Chorale, our fabulous 2011 Young Singers Project ensemble, our guest artists & me January 29, 8 pm at Trinity Episcopal Church in Portsmouth. We frequently invoke imperatives like "you don't want to miss this!" Seldom has such an injunction resonated with more truth].
Great pieces of music—like other works of art—take on lives of their own. Our favorite songs become our friends, and familiar pieces feel like family. Music, in other words, has personality. Each of the three seasons I have had the privilege of conducting the Virginia Chorale and leading our Young Singers Project, we have put together a program around a particular theme. One of the threads connecting the themes of each of these programs is music I like to call “music of conscience.” Personality traits in this musical family tree include a passion for justice and remembrance, and an emotionally honest, soulful celebration of life.
Tonight’s concert celebrates the life of someone whose personality contained all of these traits while transcending each. A tribute to Lisa Relaford Coston (written almost exactly one year ago) is included in the program, as is a note from composer Adolphus Hailstork. This entire program has been inspired by Lisa’s life, and we trust you will hear many of the beloved qualities of her personality in it.
Following the contemplative opening, God be in my head we offer the premiere performance of a song John Dixon has written for tonight’s program. All through the night is an a cappella choral arrangement of a plaintive ballad John originally wrote as a solo song for Lisa. Stephen Coxe is one of our newest composer friends and his arrangement of Deep River is full of beautiful turns of harmony reflecting its subject. The Chorale was one of the first groups to champion John's music, and it has been a privilege for me to continue that tradition. This entire program highlights our concourse with working composers, and making new musical friends like Stephen Coxe is a gift that reminds me important such relationships are.
The next two works were premiered by the Chorale in March 2010 as part of Virginia’s celebration of women in the arts, Minds Wide Open. The scores to both Whitman Interlude and Goodbye arrived last January. After Lisa’s death, both composers agreed to dedicate their new works to her memory, and our entire Spring 2010 season (planned in 2009) honored her life. Lisa loved poetry, and we often talked about our favorite American poets, Dickinson, Frost and Whitman. Mason’s imaginative Whitman setting spins “filament, filament out of itself” and mirrors the soul in its dancing search for meaning. Giselle Wyers selected a short poem I wrote following the untimely death of a relative, and joined it to an elegiac fragment by Louise Bogan. Goodbye is a hauntingly beautiful piece to which we grow more attached with each successive performance.
No composer has had a closer relationship with the Chorale than Adolphus Hailstork. The Cloths of Heaven is one of his most endearing shorter works and it was among Lisa’s favorites by any composer. The harmonies inspired by the Yeats poem are a perfect metaphor to affirm a colorful, rich & diverse personality. And I can't think of a better friend and colleague to guest conduct this work than Charles Woodward.
A Good-Night sets a Francis Quarles poem Dr Hailstork first encountered at the Chorale’s 25th anniversary concert in April 2009. The colorful harmonic language recalls The Cloths of Heaven. The wide-ranging, improvisatory-sounding soprano solo was written especially for Amy Cofield Williamson. Following this premiere, the artist who created the Young Singers Project, my esteemed colleague and friend, Robert Shoup will guest conduct one of Hailstork's most endearing works, A Carol for All Children. The title says it all.
The work that gives this concert its title and theme is a new suite of spirituals for mezzo soprano solo and chorus. Goin’ Home: Songs for Sister Lisa is resonant with the personality that inspired it. The four spirituals are densely packed portraits resonant with the black church tradition, the solo written with Lisa’s exceptional voice ringing in its composer’s ears. We are beyond blessed to have Robynne Redmon bring this ambitious part to life. Weaving together a fabric of history and presence, pain and struggle, exile and homecoming, Goin’ Home is an engaging musical canvas whose complex palette is challenging as it is rewarding. It is a resounding affirmation of a life whose impact cannot be measured, and continues to be felt.
So how does music have personality? What do we mean when we say someone is “larger than life?” We trust this music says it better than any of us possibly could.