Concert kicks off ‘Big Read'

by Trevelyan Wing | 2/7/10 11:00pm

Sunday afternoon, the Lebanon Opera House kicked off "The Big Read Upper Valley" with "A Celebration of Emily Dickinson," a musical tribute to the New England-born genius of American poetry. "The Big Read Upper Valley" is part of a four-year-old nationwide initiative funded by the National Endowment for the Arts to popularize reading in America through an exploration of American literary works.

"The Big Read Upper Valley," co-sponsored by Opera North, the Lebanon Opera House Improvement Corporation and Lebanon Public Libraries, was one of 269 proposals nationwide to receive a Big Read grant from the NEA this year, according to a recent Opera North news release.

"It's a very difficult grant to get," Opera North executive director Pamela Pantos said in an interview with The Dartmouth. "They want to make sure you're presenting classic literature, and they're very strict about how it's spent about how it will benefit the community."

According to Pantos, the NEA grants money based on the population of the area and the ideas presented by the sponsoring organizations. Based on their proposal to examine Emily Dickinson's works, the Big Read Upper Valley received $9,000 a sum which they must also match, Pantos said.

The event, which will continue through March 25, will look at Dickinson's poetry through scheduled poetry readings and workshops, a screening of the film "The Poet in Her Bedroom" (2008) and a presentation of William Luce's one-woman play "The Belle of Amherst." Additionally, The Big Read Upper Valley will give away 300 copies of Emily Dickinson's "Selected Poems" to further encourage readings of her work.

"The whole point of The Big Read' is to get readers, particularly non-readers, to read the American classics," Pantos said.

According to Pantos, Dickinson was chosen as the subject for the event based on careful consideration.

"[Dickinson] has the New England association, with deep roots in the area, and many people around here are very familiar with her," she said. "It would therefore not just be looking at literature for the sake of literature, but it'd be looking at work that has inspired other writers and musicians both past and modern; her greatness has been so widely recognized."

Pantos also explained that she hopes the program will make Dickinson's poetry "more accessible" to the Upper Valley community. Sunday's concert represented one way program organizers hope to achieve their aim relocating Dickinson from the realm of poetry into a more widely appreciated medium.

"I truly believe that our society has become so technologically oriented that in order to make the [American] classics interesting we have to give them an interesting spin a multimedia event like this one today to make classic literature more accessible by creative presentation," Pantos said.

The concert opened with chamber ensemble Camerata New England, which presented local Vermont composer Gwyneth Walker's musical interpretations of Dickinson's poetry. Their performance of Walker's compositions was elegant, creative and beautifully expressed, thoughtfully conveying the spirit of the poet to the audience. The violin, viola, piano and cello intertwined expertly to form a stunning synthesis, bringing Dickinson's poems to life sometimes eerily so.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Nolen next performed works by Aaron Copland, who set Dickinson's words to music. Nolen's beautiful, expressive and moving rendition of these pieces carried the poems seamlessly into the realm of song, visibly captivating the audience.

Following the intermission, Camerata New England presented a dexterous interpretation of the Piano Quartet in E flat major by Dickinson's contemporary Robert Schumann. The piece was interrupted by two poem recitations. This presentation was followed by another lovely performance by Nolen, coupled with spirited performances from the Lebanon High School Superlatives, a selective choir group, who also sang a handful of Dickinson's poems set to music.

Overall, Sunday's performance was an exceedingly beautiful one that encouraged those in attendance to think of the poet's works in a new context.

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