Monthly Archives: May 2018

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The Wedding Guest

In addition to their teaching, Swarthmore professors frequently work on their own, independent projects. Most recently, on April 27, Olivia Sabee, Assistant Professor of Dance, and Thomas Whitman, Daniel Underhill Professor of Music, debuted their collaborative ballet The Wedding Guest at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The Wedding Guest features Swarthmore alumni musicians, current students as dancers, and Olivia Sabee’s own dance company, Agora Dance.

Professor Whitman composed the ballet’s music. He has previously mainly worked on operas and contemporary dance pieces; this is his first time collaborating with a choreographer on a ballet. Professors Sabee and Whitman considered a number of ideas, before deciding they were interested in environmental themes. Sabee suggested adapting Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. As Professor Sabee explains,

“We were talking about all types of different ideas and decided we wanted to portray the natural world, with elements of supernatural…we originally talked about climate change, though that faded from the final piece… [The Rime of the Ancient Mariner] is a piece that can really stand on its on, with no dialogue or acting, although of course we had to pare it down a lot.”

“It’s a great story in terms of environment,” adds Whitman. “The human at the center of it all inexplicably shoots a beautiful creature of nature and gets punished by nature in return, which seemed like a colorful and resonant image. It also has a lot of opportunities to write cool music – there’s the albatross, sea monsters, storms, a calm sea, dance music for the wedding, all these different elements that seem extremely promising.”

“I was intrigued by the idea of writing a ballet with a real, old-fashioned narrative storyline,” adds Whitman. “I like working in collaboration, because it makes it much easier for me to feel like I’m contributing a piece to a larger puzzle. Collaborating with Olivia and my former students, and traveling to D.C. together, was the most pleasant part of the experience.”

Most of the dancers who performed on the program came from Agora Dance, a D.C.-based company co-directed by Professor Sabee. Overall, The Wedding Guest included three professional and seven student dancers.

“The dancers I chose had to have strong ballet skills, but also experience with improv, contemporary dance, and inversion,” says Sabee. “The dancers in this ballet were all chosen for the way they use their arms, which is very important, especially for the albatrosses…My favorite choreographic moment is a pas de deux by the two albatrosses. It’s simple in many ways, very pared down as far as movement goes, but we spent a lot of time working on arm movements to develop birdlike qualities.”

Professor Sabee spent hours watching videos of birds and of water, from waves to whirlpools, to better understand how the dancers could best reproduce the movement of water. She also worked with Swarthmore Associate in Performance Chandra Moss-Thorne, who danced the part of the titular wedding guest, and Tara Webb, who supervises the Swarthmore Theater Department wardrobe and helped design the costumes.

Meanwhile, Professor Whitman watched a number of wedding dances on Youtube in order to compose the festive music for the opening marriage scene. He was also in charge of finding musicians, three alumni and two non-alumni freelance musicians. According to Whitman, “I originally was going to hire freelance musicians in D.C. to play the score, then Olivia decided students should be part of the show. It made no sense to transport D.C. musicians to Swarthmore for rehearsals, so it was better to hire students…I was unsure about asking student musicians, because they would have had to skip a few days of classes. So ultimately I called alumni I have worked with and played with socially. Traveling to D.C. with everyone was wonderful.”

Regarding the presence of professional performers from Agora Dance, Sabee believes “any opportunities to bring students together with professional dancers is really exciting because it really pushes the students to perform more fully, and pushes them physically. We have a great crop of very talented students, and everyone thought it was great working with them.”

The ballet itself, which was part of a larger, 1-hour program, was a major success. Over three hundred people attended in person, with an extra 3,500 watching on livestream. Both professors have expressed delight in working so closely together, and hope to do more collaborations in the future.

Emilie Hautemont ’20

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Chorus & Garnet Singers Concert Features Swarthmore Composers

When interviewed on the upcoming Chorus and Garnet Singers Concert, the first thing director Joe Gregorio notes is that for the first time ever, the Garnet Singers set is entirely comprised of music by Swarthmore composers. Gregorio also writes that the Garnet Singers, comprised of 26 students, and Chorus, including 80 Swarthmore students, faculty, staff, and members of the community, are “the strongest they’ve been in the five years I’ve been lucky enough to teach here.” Seemingly, this spring semester concert will be one to remember. The diverse repertoire of both ensembles feature some of the earliest forms of music alongside pieces composed this year by up-and-coming composers, many of whom will be familiar to those in the Swarthmore community.

The Chorus will perform songs spanning one thousand years of music history, from Gregorian chant to contemporary classical and pop music.  The set revolves around the theme of sun, stars, and sea, including two settings of Alma Redemptoris Mater, an arrangement of Billy Joel’s Lullabye, a Russian song by Sergei Taneyev, and a setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?) by Joe Gregorio. Student conductors Deondre Jordan ‘19 and Andrew Kim ‘18 have assisted in preparing the Chorus during sectional rehearsals on their repertoire. The final two songs in the set were inspired by the centennial year of the passing of two significant French composers, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Lili Boulanger (1893-1918).

From Debussy, the Chorus will sing La mer est plus belle, which Gregorio notes may be the first ever choral performance of the piece. “Though Chorus has performed art song in unison before, Debussy’s is more complex than any such song we’ve attempted in the past.  It’s something of an experiment, I’ll admit, but I’m finding the mixture of Debussy’s sweeping lines, Verlaine’s mysterious text, and Chorus’s beautiful sound to be a magical one.” Joshua Mundinger ‘18 will be featured on piano in both Debussy’s and Boulanger’s works.

Boulanger’s Hymne au Soleil (Hymn to the Sun) will feature soloist Min Cheng ‘18 and is led by assistant conductor Andrew Kim ‘18. Says Kim, “This semester, I have the privilege of conducting the big Chorus, an ensemble that I’ve been a part of since my first week at Swarthmore. It could be daunting for a student conductor to stand in front of 80 people, but the musicians have been so supportive of me, always trusting my vision for the piece and working hard to bring it to life. I’m so grateful to Joe for giving me this opportunity to make beautiful music with people I love!”

The Garnet Singers will perform music by Swarthmore composers, including Min Cheng ‘18, Branch Freeman ’20, Rachel Hottle ’18, Lili Tobias ’19, Asher Wolf ’18, and Music & Dance faculty Thomas Whitman and Joe Gregorio. The text for Min Cheng’s work was written by Maya Kikuchi ‘20, and Asher Wolf’s piece features text by Moses Rubin ‘18 and soloist Shelby Billups ‘20. Joshua Mundinger will accompany Garnet Singers on the piano.

Rachel Hottle’s piece Oh!, set to the text of God’s World by Edna St. Vincent Millay, is described by the composer as “an exuberant celebration of the natural world.” This is the second song Hottle has composed for the Garnet Singers. “This piece springs from a place of sheer joy, and that’s unusual for me, and I think for most composers,” says Hottle. “I’m filled with a very pure kind of hope every time we rehearse the piece, and I think that’s a sentiment that I would do well to carry over into other areas of my life. If only one other person hears my composition and feels the same kind of hope, I will have done my job.”

Hottle’s work last semester inspired Lili Tobias in composing There’s a certain Slant of light, set to the text of Emily Dickinson’s poem of the same title. Says Tobias, “When Garnet Singers sang Rachel’s first choral piece last semester, I was really impressed with her setting of an Emily Dickinson poem. After rehearsal one night, while humming Rachel’s piece to myself, I caught sight of the poster my roommate and I have on our wall of “There’s a certain Slant of light,” and I created my own melody for it.” The piece was premiered earlier in the semester as a vocal quartet, but the spring concert marks the first performance of the song by an ensemble. “I had to make a couple changes to the music in order to facilitate the rehearsal process and improve the text-setting,” Tobias notes. “It’s been exciting seeing it take shape with a larger group.”

Five of the seven pieces performed by the Garnet Singers will premiere at the spring concert. Many Swarthmore composers, musicians, and writers contributed in creating the Garnet Singer’s set, which Gregorio notes was no easy feat. “The Garnet Singers have gamely embraced the daunting challenge of presenting a set comprising mostly premieres; the student composers, for their part, have worked hard to craft wonderful new works for the group, and in the process learned a great deal about writing for choirs.” This spring choral concert represents more than just the product of these songs. It truly showcases the entire process from creation to performance–with Swarthmore students involved every step of the way.

The Swarthmore Chorus and Garnet Singers’ Spring Concert will be held Saturday, May 5th at 3PM in Lang Concert Hall. This event is free and open to the public. For more information, visit https://www.swarthmore.edu/music/concerts-events.

Maya Kikuchi ’20