By Leah Jones, Features editor

University of MissouriSt. Louis composer Dr. Barbara Harbach, the Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Music and Director of Women in the Arts, and conductor Dr. James Henry, Music Department Chair and Associate Professor of Music and Director of Choral Studies, premiered seven new songs as Laumeier Sculpture Park’s artists-in-residence. These included an anthem written specifically for the event at the park’s 40th anniversary celebration on Saturday, July 16.

The performance featured works by diverse poets from different time periods and cultures. With such a varied set list, Harbach herself did not have a favorite song: she said “I love them all. They’re like my kittens.” However, the variety demonstrated the talents of the students and faculty who took part in the event. Dr. Gail Fleming, Music Department faculty and conductor of UMSL Women’s Chorale, said, “It showcased the variety and excellent musicality of Dr. Harbach’s musical compositions, it featured the outstanding quality of our UMSL music students (from vocal to instrumental), and it served as a way to highlight Dr. Henry’s outstanding choral conducting.”

The performance featured UMSL student musicians, including the Vocal Point, The Vaughans and Melodia. During his second year at UMSL in 2005, Henry formed The Vocal Point, which performs a diverse range of a cappella pieces ranging from classical Renaissance pieces to multi-cultural and pop pieces. Olivia Cross, senior, Music FAC BA, Gemma Levine, freshman, non-degree, Education, and Andrea Lair, senior, music education FAC BM, formed Melodia in 2015, with Fleming acting as the conductor and keyboardist. Valencia Branch, junior, music FAC BM, Maria A. Ellis, senior, Music FAC BM, Charlene Masona, junior, biology BS, and Malena Smith, senior, communication BA, sing as The Vaughans, an a cappella quartet. Resilda Lala, senior, music FAC BM, played the flute and Chad Pleasant, senior, music FAC BM, performed on the violin.

Dr. Henry speaks at the event with the Vocal Point behind him and Dr. Harbach standing to the side. Photo by Leah Jones.
Dr. Henry speaks at the event with the Vocal Point behind him and Dr. Harbach standing to the side. Photo by Leah Jones.

The performance took off with “The Laumeier Sculpture Park Anthem,” written by Harbach for the anniversary. Melodia performed the anthem, which incorporated many of the names of the sculptures boasted by the park, accompanied by piano. The Vaughans performed “Rossetti Song” next, set to a poem by the 19th century poet Christina Georgina Rossetti. Henry described the piece as both “unusual” and “poignant.” Lala and Pleasant stole the show with the light and airy piece “Four Dances for Two Flute and Violin,” which was divided into “Rococo Promenade,” “Afternoon Divertimento,” “Get Reel,” and “Holiday Glide.”

The Vocal Point sang “Intoxicated by the Wine of Love,” which featured text written by the twelfth century Persian Muslim poet, Sufist theoretician, and hagiographer Farid al-Din ‘Attar. In introducing the piece, Dr. Henry cited the lyrics and said, “What is everybody whispering? Love. What does everybody need in their life? Love.” Dr. Harbach said of the piece, “I like lyrics that speak and I just know if it’s going to grab me.” Bounding across temporal and cultural divides, the piece grabbed both Harbach and the audience as it pranced along.

“I think [Harbach] really captured the colors of the text and what it was trying to convey,” Dr. Henry said. “It’s pretty spectacular … that poetry is almost a thousand years old … and yet so pertinent to today.”

Next, Melodia took the stage to perform “Symptom Recital,” with humorous and self-conscious lyrics by the early 20th century poet and satirist, Dorothy Parker. Lala performed a flute solo, “Petite Rhapsody,” which Harbach said “hits the bottom of the range and the top of the range.”

The performance took a somber turn with “Many Thousands Gone,” performed by the Vocal Point and accompanied by flute, cello, and piano. Opening with the line “Mama’s on the auction block,” Harbach was inspired to write the piece by the plight of Harriet and Dred Scott. She said, “It’s something that we have such a history of, in Missouri, both being the north and the south, in that way. And I have written several pieces for Harriet Scott and for Harriet and Dred, so I have that great affinity towards them.”

The women of the Vaughans: Valencia Branch, Maria A. Ellis, Charlene Masona, and Malena Smith. Photo by Leah Jones.
The women of the Vaughans: Valencia Branch, Maria A. Ellis, Charlene Masona, and Malena Smith. Photo by Leah Jones.

Tenor 1, Mason Hunt, sophomore, music FAC BM, of the Vocal Point cited the song as one of his favorites, acknowledging the depth and importance of the material. “When we got it, a lot of us, like just reading the music, [said] ‘We have to sing this? This is really like heavy.’ And some people didn’t want to sing it,” he said.“But we realized that it was kind of important to say that stuff and to bring it in front of people’s eyes.”

The final piece, which was the only song not premiered at the event, lightened the atmosphere with lyrics written by Helen Keller titled “Light Out of Darkness,” performed by Melodia.

One of the oldest and largest sculpture parks in the country, Laumeier Sculpture Park was formed in 1976 on land donated by Mrs. Matilda Laumeier on behalf of her deceased husband, Henry Laumeier. It featured 40 gifted works of art by local artist Ernest Trova and today is a nonprofit museum that is a part of the St. Louis County Department of Parks and Recreation. Curator of Exhibitions, Dana Turkovic, said that the artists-in-residence program began in 2011 and that Laumeier has hosted a diverse group of people, including composers, an environmental historian, archaeologists, and a nutritionist.

“We asked them if they could do a performance to kick off our anniversary, and celebrate us being 40 years old,” explained Turkovic. “They graciously said that they would do this for us. They kind of came up with this entire program just for Laumeier.”

She added, “Thanks to them. Thanks to all of the musicians, and instrumentalists, and vocalists, I think that that was very generous of them to partake.”

Harbach, Henry, and Fleming also expressed gratitude for the experience and opportunity. Henry said, “I am really happy that Laumeier would reach out to UMSL and our music department for this really important event. I think that is something that all of us at UMSL can be really proud of, and I just am so appreciative to them for thinking of us and for … trusting us with that important task, and I do feel like, especially with Barbara’s music and the talent of our students, that we were able to answer that request in a good way, so I am really just proud [of what] everybody did to make this thing happen.”

Fleming echoed this sentiment: “I thought that it was a very special event, and I’m honored to have been included.” Harbach added, “I just thought that the students at UMSL were outstanding. I couldn’t have asked for better performances. And Dr. Jim Henry is outstanding and Dr. Fleming as well.”

Keep an eye out for the artists-in-residence’s second performance with Laumeier Sculpture Park to take place in October.

For more information about Laumeier Sculpture Park, visit their website. For information on the performance groups, visit their websites: Vocal Point; The Vaughns; Melodia.