Second Sighting of "The Jury"

T-minus one week for the festival and events are already selling out so get your tickets now. Please bring your friends and family especially to the Pay-What-You-Can final concert on Sunday, August 13th to celebrate Rhina and hear the world premiere based on her poem, “The Jury.” Speaking of which…

“The love of men is my chief joy”

There were a few weeks in July 2022 when NCMF Composer-in-Residence Jon Deak emailed me a new page of the manuscript every day; it was as if I were witnessing the birth of a new composition in real time, not unlike a musical version of watching Harry Potter step out from behind the Cloak of Invisibility. The manuscript I’m referring to is, of course, the score for this summer’s commission, “The Jury,” composed by Deak and based on the eponymous poem by Rhina P. Espaillat.

While I look forward to the world premiere every year, this one has me giddy. “The Jury” promises to be everything I’ve come to expect from the Pulitzer-nominated composer – wry, arch, immensely entertaining, and with a sting in the tail. Jon’s work blurs the line between music and theater: he has the musicians scratching their strings, knocking on wood, cooing, clucking, and a bunch of other nutty stuff I have no clue how to do (yet). All while the soprano prowls around behind us string players speaking, singing, reciting, and some stuff I don’t even know how to describe. I have no idea what is going to happen but that’s part of the thrill.

A typical email from Jon Deak containing newly minted pages of the manuscript

I first approached Jon Deak about setting a poem of Rhina’s to music back in 2019. He was cautiously optimistic but needed to see if her work woke the muse in him. I sent him a pile of poems and he called a few days later excited about setting “The Jury” to soprano and string quartet.

The Jury
By Rhina P. Espaillat

In a bare tree,
four strangers gathered from afar
slipped into talk,  as travelers do.
First Eagle said, “How strange they are,

these creatures lately come to climb
our cliffs and spy upon our brood.
They have no constancy, but drift
from mood to mood:

first, wanton slaughter, and now zeal
to build our hunted tribe again.
I cannot fathom them at all.”
“They are called Men,”

said Pigeon, “and I know them well.
I’ve learned their secret. All they use,
from day to day, to guide their steps,
is just their shoes.

It’s true, my friends. In new spiked boots
yesterday’s farmer struts the street,
turned killer, and tomorrow dies
derelict, with rag-bound feet.

More out of sympathy than need,
I gather their spilled crumbs to know
toward what new grief
their wayward shoes would have them go.”

“And yet,” said Sparrow, “I have known
some who would leave their lighted nest
to scatter seed, through razor winds,
for our sake, lest

we hunger through December days.
I’ve seen them fling their gaze above
their comforts, to pursue us with
something like love.”

“True,” Vulture said, “for they love me
and have my welfare much in mind.
In Leningrad, in Lebanon
men were most kind

and nourished me with their own young.
Vietnam, Verdun, Angola, Troy,
Thermopylae…the love of men
is my chief joy.”

“Well, that’s as may be,” Eagle said,
“but they are feeble things at best.
Condemned to winglessness, they creep
in their own shadow, flight-obsessed,

a sad smudge upon the earth,
half-willingly erased at last.
We will posses our own again,
when they have passed.”


With the four birds represented by the four members of the string quartet, and a fifth artist (a soprano) to sing the text, Rhina’s poem is ideally suited to this summer’s commission. I was delighted to discover that “Pigeon,” played by the viola in the new work, has an unusually prominent role.

Of course, any opportunity to do anything with Rhina counts as a good day in my book. Here is a lovely interview about the commission with Newburyport’s interviewer extraordinaire, Mary Jacobsen If you have not checked out Mary’s show, you really should. She has an uncanny way of putting people at ease which can lead to unique insights when you least expect it.

Link to Interview with Rhina Espaillat on PortMedia's YouTube channel
Mary and Rhina

I love how collaborative this work is: Jon inspired by Rhina’s poem, modeling the soprano part on Elaine’s voice, followed by the group working closely with him to realize his vision. This is the essence of chamber music.


David Yang, Artistic Director

What do you mean you don’t read alto clef?

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