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September 2015
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Salon-Style Concert Puts Poetry First at the Poetry Foundation



Grammy Award nominated soprano Nicole Heaston, a Chicago native, sits down with a volume of Emily Dickinson’s poetry at the Poetry Foundation, before her performance of Aaron Copland’s “Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson” in a salon-style concert produced by the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago.

Of all the sister arts, music and poetry are two of the closest. They’ve been inseparable for thousands of years. Could there be a better place to celebrate the special relationship between music and poetry than the Poetry Foundation in downtown Chicago?

The Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago (CAIC), now in its fourth season of presenting vocal recitals with some of today’s most accomplished singers, puts poetry first in a free, salon-style concert at the Poetry Foundation on Thursday, September 10, 2015 at 7:30 pm.

I sat down with Grammy Award nominated soprano Nicole Heaston and CAIC artistic director, tenor Nicholas Phan, at the Poetry Foundation to learn more about their upcoming performance.

The program, titled “The Transcendentalists,” explores the impact of Transcendentalist poets on American composers, including Charles Ives and Ned Rorem. The concert also features settings of Emily Dickinson by Lee Hoiby and and Aaron Copland.

I know what you’re thinking. “Emily Dickinson!?! She’s not a Transcendentalist poet!” Well, I thought the same thing too at first. But then I was reminded that “for wishing only to be herself, Dickinson was following a transcendental ideal,” according to resources on the Transcendentalists published online by Texas A & M University.

Perhaps the centerpiece of Thursday’s concert is Aaron Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, which Nicole Heaston will perform.

Heaston, a native Hyde Parker, told me she first encountered Dickinson’s poetry as a student at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory Schools. “I really felt the poems that I read when I was that age, I guess I was probably around 10?”

“I’ve never done Copland’s settings of Dickinson before, which is rare,” she confessed, “because there are many singers I know who sang at least three or four of these songs in college. So, when I picked them up at first I thought, ‘Oh, I know these songs, I know ‘The World Feels Dusty.’ I know ‘Why Do They Shut Me Out of Heaven’ just by hearing it. But, I didn’t know them.”

Though some college students have performed these works, they are anything but simple. “Some are quite difficult,” Heaston said. “When I looked at the music I thought, ‘There are a lot of rhythm changes in this thing!’ But it was a challenge, and I loved it.”

“And I’m so glad I didn’t learn it in college,” she continued, “because I can bring maturity and all of my years of experience to them, and color them in a way that maybe someone couldn’t have done if they were in college.”

Though any piece of music benefits from more experience, Copland’s Dickinson settings are challenging because of their particularly broad emotional range. “They’re very diverse, they’re not like a normal song cycle that goes from one theme to the next and it melds into an emotional arc,” she explained. “They’re all very different songs.”

Scholar Dorthoy Zayatz Baker wrote in The Emily Dickinson Journal that, “Aaron Copland, like Emily Dickinson, was recognized for his tremendous thematic range.” Dickinson described her own penchant for changing her poetic voice from poem to poem as her “vice for voices,” which Copland reflects in his settings of her poetry.

To provide an example of the contrasting moods among Copland’s songs, Heaston said, “The song ‘Heart, We Will Forget Him’ is a very longing, heartbreaking song, and the next song is ‘Dear March, come in!,’ and I’m speaking to the month of March!” she chuckled. “They’re very diverse in attitude, but so beautifully set. When you think of the poetry and the way Copland set it, they’re all very exciting and interesting.”

Heaston’s approach to learning these works was the same as Copland’s was in composing them: put the poetry first.

Copland composed the songs from 1949-1950, during which he immersed himself in the complete works of Dickinson, read secondary literature about her, and even visited her home in Amherst, Massachusetts.

When Heaston began learning Copland’s cycle, she said, “I went through the poems first, and then I added the rhythms, and finally I started to learn the music.”

This “poetry first” approach helps Heaston stay true to the composer’s intentions in honoring Dickinson’s words. “Copland tried to make it like you’re speaking in English, and not where you’re singing in rhythms,” she said.”

“It was very important for me to learn the rhythms in it so that it would sound like it is me speaking to you instead of duh-DUH, duh-DUH, duh-DUH, duh-DUH,” she said as she conducted robotically with her hand. “It has a flow to it.”

But “poetry first” is how Heaston learns all of her music. “Many teachers will tell you to start with the text, and start with the rhythm, and don’t jump in immediately trying to sight-read with everything all at the same time, because it can just be bit of a cluster. For me, once the words are in my head, I can kind of put that aside, and start working on the vocal line, and usually they go together. Then it’s more about making it music, and not just notes and words.”

One of her favorite songs in Copland’s Dickinson cycle is “I Heard An Organ Talk Sometimes.” Though scored for voice and piano, Heaston says in this song, “The piano literally sounds like an organ. My mother was an organ player, so I’m used to those chords, and he begins the song that way. It’s really a beautiful, haunting song.”

Nicholas Phan joins Heaston on Thursday’s program at the Poetry Foundation. He said that, fortuitously, “around the time CAIC was formed, the Poetry Foundation moved into their beautiful new building, with its beautiful salon performance space – it’s an ideal venue for audiences to experience the intimate art form of the song recital.”

Though many concert presenters around the country are programming fewer vocal recitals these days, Phan said that “putting this repertoire back in its ‘natural’ habitat of the salon and ensuring that our programming is compelling has been very successful for us at CAIC.”

In CAIC’s salons, Phan said, “there is simply no barrier between the audience and the art, and learning to be able to be open and vulnerable in those circumstances has only made performing a more moving and unique experience – for both me and the audience.  That is definitely not an experience one will ever have with a recording or a YouTube video.”

“The Transcendentalists” is one of two salon concerts that are part of CAIC’s Collaborative Works Festival, which has grown its audience by 400% in just four years. The CAIC’s free Poetry Foundation salon concerts are so popular, Phan reports, that they are “always turning people away, so be sure to show up early!”


To learn more about this concert, visit the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago’s website.

To learn more about the poetry of Emily Dickinson, visit the Emily Dickinson Archive’s website or the Poetry Foundation’s online resources.


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