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Rita Dove, Richard Danielpour partner on song cycle exploring America's tumultuous 20th century

Each performance of a moving song cycle about key moments in 20th-century American history has a different feel, because audience members are bringing history of their own.

“A Standing Witness,” a song cycle created by Grammy Award-winning composer Richard Danielpour and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove, will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Cabell Hall Auditorium at the University of Virginia.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham will join Music from Copland House to sing 14 songs. Music from Copland House, the chamber ensemble performing with Graham, is the resident ensemble at composer Aaron Copland’s home in New York. Its members include flutist Carol Wincenc, clarinetist Benjamin Fingland, violinist Siwoo Kim, violist Melissa Reardon, cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach and pianist Michael Boriskin.

Together, they will dive into milestones from a century for the ages, including the Civil Rights Movement, the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War and Woodstock.

If You Go"A Standing Witness" Featuring Susan Graham and Music from Copland House 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday Talkback with Rita Dove and Richard Danielpour set for 6:30 p.m. Saturday Cabell Hall Auditorium at University of Virginia $40-$10; 20% discount for UVa faculty and staff members; free for students using ArtsDollars Colloquium with Richard Danielpour 4 p.m. Thursday Old Cabell Hall Room 107 Free (434) 924-3376

“After every performance, we leave the stage in tears,” Graham told The Daily Progress. “You’re trying to paint with all the colors the audience needs to see as the time unfolds.”

“Every audience pulls a slightly different performance of it,” Dove told The Daily Progress. She has seen the work performed four times, including at the Kennedy Center and Tanglewood Music Center.

“Each time, a thrill runs through me. The first time I saw it, it was a very public setting, and I had not heard the music,” Dove said. She listened “knowing Richard was watching me to see how I would react.”

At Tanglewood, she noticed the audience of slightly older listeners reacting to the music. At UVa, “we’re going to have a higher proportion of younger viewers, and I’m really curious to see what that does,” Dove said.

“When I first approached this project, I told myself I wanted them to be poems as well as songs,” said Dove, who is Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia. “I was calling them ‘testimonies.’ You feel it’s one person saying what he or she has seen or felt. I didn’t hear the music until the end.”

The witness of the title won’t be revealed until the work’s epilogue, but Dove knew from the beginning of the creation process the qualities the character needed to possess.

“I knew it was going to be sung by a mezzo-soprano. That tonality was in my head,” said Dove, herself a soprano. “Richard mentioned to me at the very beginning who he wanted to sing it.”

Dove said his choice of Graham, an internationally acclaimed singer for whom the role of Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie’s opera “Dead Man Walking” was written, ensured the range of emotions and precise control the piece requires.

“A Standing Witness” demands “the gravitas you get from someone her age. It’s not for an ingenue,” Dove said, adding that Graham’s voice “has both a richness and a bite. It felt perfectly poised for this piece. It’s tinged with hope, but also with sadness and grief. There’s sadness, and a bit of shame.

“She can act with that voice. It can strut. It can mourn. It can shake a fist at the heavens.”

Dove said the singer needs “an old soul” — and endurance, “so it is as fresh at the end as at the beginning.” Graham is up to the task.

“Susan’s basically up there singing for seventy minutes. Even in opera, they don’t sing seventy minutes without a break,” Dove said.

Graham said that time “goes by in a heartbeat, because everything is so jam-packed.”

“It’s a panoply of colors and expressions,” Graham said. “You’ll hear classical. You’ll hear jazz. You’ll hear Motown. It’s so much more than the notes on the page. You can tell by the way [the musicians] put the bow on the strings that they are invested in telling the story.”

After “A Standing Witness” was completed, Graham was the one who told Dove and Danielpour that there needed to be a song about the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the nation.

“She was right,” Dove said. “It really was the right thing to do.”

The 15th piece is an instrumental elegy, because there are no words for the tragedy of 9/11. “It’s a remarkable piece,” Dove said quietly.

Audience members can attend talkback time with Dove and Danielpour at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, before the 7:30 p.m. performance, and learn more about how the song cycle came to be.

The UVa Department of Music also will present a free colloquium with Danielpour at 4 p.m. Thursday in Old Cabell Hall Room 107.


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