A musical tribute to the Sierra Nevada landscape: Sierra Prelude Project weaves art and landscape into music
Special to Prospector
KNOW & GO
WHO: Lynn Schugren – Sierra Prelude Project
WHAT: A virtual concert of piano preludes evoking aspects of the Sierra Nevada landscape
WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6
WHERE: Premiered on InConcert Sierra’s YouTube channel and website. Go to In Concert’s website for links http://www.inconcertsierra
Lynn Schugren remembers getting up at 6 in the morning to practice the piano. But since there was no central heating in her family’s creaky old farmhouse at the time, come winter, she had to wear trimmed off mittens to keep her hands warm.
Her parents had discovered the house on a foray into the foothills outside of Nevada City, leading them to purchase it, along with 30 acres of land. There were weekend retreats for a year or so before the family moved up from Berkeley full-time in 1959, when Lynn was just 11.
Lynn was no stranger to the piano, having studied since the age of 5. But the land around her gave her a second passion. As she explored the outdoors on foot and horseback, feeling unabridged freedom, she grew to love the trees, wildlife and landscape in the Sierra foothills and mountains.
Although she moved back to Berkeley as an adult, the property remained in her family, and in 2006, she returned to the old farmhouse. Ever energetic, she’s maintained an active schedule through the years, teaching and performing, both locally and in the Bay Area, as well as tending a large garden and caring for her horses, dogs, cats and chickens. And while her bond to the land remains strong, there’s a poignancy to it now, considering the increasing destruction of our environment.
In pondering this situation, she came up with a novel idea: to weave art and the landscape into a program of music — a program she came to call the Sierra Prelude Project. Back in 2019, she commissioned a series of preludes for solo piano. She asked 10 California composers to employ a feature of the Sierra Nevada in their creations. In doing so, she hoped to showcase new music while raising awareness about the health of our climate and natural resources.
The composers in the project wrote pieces evoking mountain sunrises, waterfalls and sounds of the forest, as well as destructive wildfires and the fragility of nature. In addition, each composer chose a painting or photo, along with a text, to accompany his or her prelude.
Lynn’s original plan was to perform the preludes in live concerts throughout the region, with the premier set for September of 2020 in Grass Valley. The visuals were going to be projected on a screen as each prelude was played. But due to COVID restrictions, these plans had to be altered. So instead, the program was filmed locally, without an audience, and melded into a one-hour presentation, showing Lynn in concert, interspersed with visuals and inspirational texts.
The program opens with a prelude by Elinor Armer — Mountain Sunrise — illustrated by a Barbara Michelman photo. We see the brilliant orange light emerging in the mountains and treetops, and sense the light in the music. Voices in the Forest, by Alexis Alrich, follows, with a rising transformational sound, somewhat mystical, represented visually by her own dreamy and verdant watercolor.
Molly Axtmann chose a photo by Richard Blair — Clouds over the Minarets — as the springboard for her prelude, and her impressionistic music aptly describes the canopy of clouds hanging over the jagged peaks of the mountains.
Mark Vance also looked at the majesty of the mountains, selecting Thomas Hill’s painting Great Canyon of the Sierra to pair with his prelude: Fragile — musically expressing the magnitude of our responsibility, our call as citizens to protect the beauty of the land.
By contrast, Jerry Grant zeroed in on wildfires and the devastation of our California landscape, using Barbara Michelman’s black and white photo, Fire on the Mountains, as the backdrop for his prelude, which gives a visceral voice to our rage and grief as we mourn the loss of our land and communities.
Other preludes in the program — written by Jake Collins, Robert Greenberg, Durwynne Hsieh, Dennis Lauderdale and Bruce Nalezny — bring to mind crows, lakes, sunsets, pathways and possibilities, completing the musical journey. And while the music in the project describes the wonders and complexities of our environment, it’s also meant to raise awareness — to draw attention to the dangers it faces with the onslaught of poor management, encroaching development and our ongoing climate crisis.
Furthermore, it was Lynn’s intent from the beginning to emphasize the importance of conservation, which is why she briefly highlights two local environmental groups in her presentation — the South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL) and the Sierra Streams Institute, which Lynn says “both represent environmental activism through hands-on projects, education and restoration of our Sierra waterways.”
The Sierra Prelude Project, replete with music and artwork, will be unveiled to the public this Sunday at 2 p.m., courtesy of InConcert Sierra.
The program opens with a photo of Mountain Misery, a familiar ground carpet found in our conifer forests. Accompanying the photo is a fragment of a poem by Gary Snyder, which begins with the words: “Sierra Nevada could lift the heart so high …”
The Sierra Prelude Project — with music, visuals, texts, and the ensuing emotional connection to the environment — is designed to do just that: Lift the heart so high.
Julie Becker lives in Nevada City
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