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From farm to musical fruition: Young composers persevere despite pandemic

Julie Becker
Special to The Union

KNOW & GO

WHO: InConcert Sierra

WHAT: Composers Virtual Concert: Instrumental pieces with environmental themes

WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18

WHERE: Streamed live on InConcert Sierra’s YouTube channel and Facebook page. Go to InConcert’s website for links: http://www.inconcertsierra.org

When Maura Blair nestled a friendly Rhode Island Red chicken in her arms last fall, thoughts of a looming global pandemic were fodder for science fiction.

At the time, Maura was one of 13 young musicians enrolled in Mark Vance’s Composers Project, run by InConcert Sierra. While students in Vance’s classes are well-versed in harmony, theory, notation, rhythmic patterns and more, their studies are enhanced by going outside the box — by collaborating with a local nonprofit every year.

During the 2019-2020 season, they worked closely with Sierra Harvest, learning firsthand about organic farming and the growing of fresh local food — which is where Maura and the chicken come in. She and her fellow students visited Sierra Harvest’s Food Love Farm outside Nevada City, where they toured the gardens and were greeted by a flock of hens — a charming introduction to the world of farming.

Other activities followed, leading to a deeper understanding of the Earth and its ecosystems, and from that platform, the composers were tasked with writing an instrumental piece relating to their hands-on participation or observations.

In any year other than 2020, there would have been a live concert in June, with professional musicians performing the students’ pieces — but normalcy hit the skids in March. Yet, through the wonders of Zoom and modern technology, the program continued via distance, and the intrepid young composers persevered. And while the live concert had to be scrapped, Vance, with the support of our amazing artistic community, came up with a way to showcase the students’ compositions.

Thanks to the generosity of videographers Lou Douros and Larry Huntington and a collection of 20 local and regional musicians, all of the students’ pieces were recorded in the Miners Foundry in Nevada City during a two-day period in July. And now, after sifting through hours of material, Douros has put together a complete polished production ready for prime time.

By tradition, InConcert Sierra presents world-class concerts every Third Sunday from September through May. Concerts featuring luminary soloists and chamber groups such as violinist Joshua Bell, pianist Spencer Myer, cellist Amit Peled, the Escher String Quarter, the Venice Music Project and musicians from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. But with the stage now dark during COVID times, the Third Sunday slot on Oct. 18 will be filled virtually by a host of musicians playing the works of the 13 young composers — which takes us back to the Rhode Island Red nestled in Maura Blair’s arms.

Maura, now 18 and a freshman at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, composed The Garden’s Lullaby for cello and harp. “It’s supposed to embody the feelings I get when I’m in nature or in the garden. A feeling that makes me want to look around and be part of everything,” she said. “I also added a chicken section into the center of the piece which is playful and contrasts with the beginning melodies.”

While Maura was inspired by her visit to Food Love Farm, fellow composer Lydia Fuller-Hall was influenced by a documentary film called “The Biggest Little Farm.” According to Lydia, “The film emphasizes the importance of traditional farming, working with nature, when farming usually works against it. Traditionally, we work with nature by enhancing the use of the ecosystem, instead of monoculture which is just planting the same crop for miles and miles.”

Lydia, 17, is now a freshman at Emory University in Atlanta. Her string quartet has a rather strange name: The Death of Rebirth, but as she explained, “I wanted to emphasize the beauty of nature, but also talk about how it is slowly dying out. I wanted to work with those parallels of rebirth and dying.”

In contrast to Lydia, Athena Giuliani’s string quartet was kindled by environmental activist Vandana Shiva, the keynote speaker at Sierra Harvest’s Food and Farm Conference in February. In Athena’s words, “Dr. Shiva encouraged farmers to farm in a way that cares for the land and its connected parts. And I wrote my piece with this connection in mind.

“My piece, entitled Interconnected, starts with the viola, an instrument that goes as the unnoticed glue of the ensemble. The melody is then passed around in a fugue-like fashion to all the other instruments. This melody is jolly, which is showing hope for the future.”

Athena, 14, now a freshman at Nevada Union High School, shows herself to be wise and introspective, as well as musical. And while she focuses on the interconnections in our ecosystem, her thoughts could well be extended to the arts. Connections to our community, our emotions, our culture. A unifying force we need now more than ever.

Although Mark Vance has been teaching composition to young people for 20 years, he never ceases to be impressed by their brilliance. “The kids are writing the music. It’s in them; they’re capable of doing it,” he said. “And maybe in this time, they’re more able to write because they’re able to go into a safe space, creating a little world around their projects.”

All of their projects, the compositions of 13 students, will be unveiled to the public this Sunday. The program features instrumental duos, trios, quartets and quintets, all with environmental themes, including rivers, wildlife, farming, weather and water systems.

To tune in to the concert at 2 p.m., go to the InConcert website: http://www.inconcertsierra.org

Julie Becker lives in Nevada City


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