A Conversation with Ania Vu
David talks with composer Ania Vu about her new work written for the NCMF Winter Baroque concert.
An unusually Newburyport commission with NCMF, Rhina Espaillat and Alfred Nicol, and the Newburyport Art Association
Each year I ask the composer to connect the commissioned work to Newburyport whether it be referencing the town’s rich history, the natural landscape, or tied to the colorful characters who have strolled its storied streets. While sometimes it is too much of a stretch (last summer’s sitar and string quartet would have felt forced), this year I asked Composer-in-Residence Robert Bradshaw (https://www.robertjbradshaw.com) to write a string quartet explicitly channeling the energy and spirit of eight locations in town. He enthusiastically agreed to take this on and upped the ante by adding recorded sounds sampled from each location. Here are the movements along with notes from his visits:
Robert Bradshaw (b. 1970)
“A Day in the Life of Newburyport” for string quartet
I - The Break of Day Over Plum Island @ 5:52 a.m.
We pad across the beach, plum-covered dunes chirping behind us. It feels like the world pauses for a moment, still with anticipation, before the day wakens around us. Fishermen gather, gearing up for a day at sea,
while young gulls patter down to the edge of the water, quickly retreating, as the waves slide up the beach.
II - 158 to North Station @ 7:30 a.m.
The station is filled with commuters. Some are nonchalantly gazing at their phones; some are deep in quiet conversation; while still others are filled with impatient nervous energy; but all are waiting to travel into Boston. Blues music reaches out from speakers set on the ground outside a café. Suddenly, the train rounds the bend and roars into the station. Immediately, the platform is filled with comings and goings but just as quickly, it is motionless again, waiting…
III - The Fountain on Inn Street @ 11:00 a.m.
A fountain dances, bursting from the center of Inn Street. Fascinating. Leaping high; crashing down; gurgling underground in some unseen mechanical depth. Adults pass by without a glance but every child strains against their tethered hand to feel the outpouring of merriment. One by one, dragged by, then suddenly the hand is free and joy pours from children and fountain alike.
IV - The City Hall First Floor Corridor Portrait Gallery @ 2:45 p.m.
Feet move swiftly from hall to office. Faces wait patiently. Images of those who have fallen in service watch the inner workings of the seat of government and community events. One person rests his cane against the wall,
slowly reaches up, and pauses to say, “Thank you.”
V - The Harbor Marina @ 3:45 p.m.
A low murmuring is heard from the marina. Idling motorboats bob in the water,
jostling in their slips, while halyards chime on masts, singing in the breeze.
VI - Promenade on the Waterfront Park Boardwalk @ 6:15 p.m.
Strolling along the Merrimack River before dinner, we are lost in reminiscence. We are overtaken by a bicycle pitter-pattering as it rolls along. We look up and see tourists waiting to disembark. Stealthily, a white lump of ice cream creeps between the boards, inching toward its escape. Strangers pass, sharing glances and smiles containing secrets –
all the while, a man sits with a guitar, quietly strumming. We look at each other and are thankful.
VII - Standing in a Grove of Trees, in Oak Hill Cemetery, at Twilight @ 8:10 p.m.
Surrounded by the distant sounds of Newburyport, the trees and monuments seem to grow as their shadows dissipate into the gloaming. The eerily luminescent eventide envelops us as we stand quietly, listening to the coming night.
VIII - Moonrise Over Plum Island @ 9:30 p.m.
We end the day where we began. The place remains the same but we are different.
Meanwhile, as Robert was writing the music, I asked beloved bards Rhina Espaillat (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/rhina-p-espaillat ) and Alfred Nicol (https://www.alfrednicol.com) whether they would write a poem corresponding to each of the eight locations. Below is a selection from each suite:
Rhina P. Espaillat (b. 1932)
Lumpy rocks to climb on;
mud to stomp around;
slides to spend some time on
before you head on down;
twisty tubes to crawl in;
bars to squiggle through;
holes you’re not to fall in
until, of course, you do;
playmates to smash into
running at full speed;
fountains to dash into—
a shower’s what you need!—
and before you’re any wetter,
dash out of right away.
Can anything be better?
It’s a perfect day!
Alfred Nicol (b. 1956)
Wandering City Hall
More serious than I am, to be sure,
the servicemen portrayed here—commandants,
the naval officer who died in France
of some disease for which we’ve found the cure,
the Great War vets—all find me immature.
They sum me up with just a passing glance,
and envy me my easy circumstance:
I’ve only their reproval to endure.
I duck and hurry past them up the stairs.
An empty concert hall, with chandeliers!
There in the balcony, the paint is peeling.
Reflections move across the stucco’d ceiling.
I’ll sit awhile. There’s nothing more to do.
These silences should count as music, too.
Finally, working closely with the Newburyport Art Association(https://newburyportart.org), eight artists were chosen to represent each location. The painters are Sara Demrow Dent, Janet Sutherland, Bonita LeFlore, Susan Spellman, Ron Emmerling, Brent Rotsko, Jay McCarthy, and Robin Thornhill. The paintings will be on display first at the NAA and then in St. Paul’s during the concert for a multi-pronged collaboration with music, poetry, and art.
See you at the concert!
David Yang, Artistic Director