The intersection of environmental awareness, poetry and music
by Stephen Black for Vocal Area Network
Posted June 1, 2019

Wendell Berry Choral ProjectIn the canon of American literature, there are certain writers who seem to be magnets for composers of choral music. In this regard the names Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost readily come to mind. The pictorial nature of some of Frost’s poetry attracted several composers to set his words to evocative miniatures, such as Frostiana by Randall Thompson. On the other hand, Walt Whitman, with his grand command of the epic and his individual sense of Americana, inspired composers to set monumental works using texts drawn from his works.

In our day and age we have a writer from Kentucky who has also inspired a substantial number of reputable composers to set his words to music. That writer is Wendell Berry, recipient of the National Humanities Medal bestowed by President Obama in 2011, and best known for his gently lyrical works celebrating nature, as well as provocative manifestos decrying the abuse of the earth. His book The Unsettling of America (1977) is regarded as a classic of American letters, and the essays contained within prompted many at the time to regard him as both esteemed writer and prophet. Both of these estimations have been a draw for composers such as Dave Brubeck, Libby Larsen, Olli Kortekangas, Gwyneth Walker and several others. To date, over sixty choral compositions exist that set texts by Berry, and because of this he is worthy of the company of the aforementioned writers amply represented in American choral music.

On Wednesday, June 5 conductor Stephen Black presents a very special concert celebrating the words of Wendell Berry. The concert, entitled "The Place That Is My Own Place," is a fundraiser for the Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky. The Berry Center is a non-profit that seeks to support family farms, foster initiatives in sustainable agriculture, and draw attention to exploitative practices by industrial farming and mining corporations. All the selections on the program are works of Berry set to vocal music, and include a piece in Southern Harmony style by Andrew Maxfield, an excerpt from the opera Payne Hollow by Shawn Jaeger, a world premiere of a new choral work by Sarah Rimkus, a piece for treble voices by Joan Szymko, and a work utilizing chorus, piano and percussion instruments made of natural objects by Steve Heitzeg. There will also be an excerpt from a Bill Moyers interview of Berry, presented as part of the program. Talent from the state of Kentucky is a considerable part of the concert. In addition to Berry, conductor Stephen Black hails from Kentucky, and the composer Shawn Jaeger was born in Louisville.

The concert will take place at Metro Baptist Church, 410 West 40th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues), New York City. The concert begins at 7:00 PM, will last approximately 50 minutes, and be followed by a meet-and-greet with the artists and composers. For more information, visit www.wendellberrychoralproject.org.

Stephen Black enjoys an active career as a choral conductor, and has conducted many choirs in New York City and Los Angeles.