In an age when advocacy has revolutionized female empowerment, ROCO travels back in time to give voice to the voiceless — generations of women who lived largely unheard and largely unknown.
The professional music ensemble unearths pieces of history that are often overlooked this weekend in “Time for Hope,” a program that features the captivating sounds of mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin, who, despite her own blindness, brings the personal stories of five such women to light in Lisa Bielawa’s “Centuries in the Hours.”
Kicking off its 15th season, ROCO will perform a free showing of the song cycle at Miller Outdoor Theatre on Friday, followed by a second, ticketed concert at the Church of St. John the Divine on Saturday. The two-hour evening, which will highlight the orchestra’s first-ever artistic partner, conductor Mei-Ann Chen, also includes works by Joseph Haydn, Judith Shatin and local composer Alejandro Basulto, as well as three ROCO-commissioned world premieres that are a part of FIFteen, a seasonlong project of fanfares, interludes and finales organized by composer and pianist Mark Buller.
“Since ROCO is all about relationships and access, the invitation to explore worlds we do not normally inhabit can inspire a sense of wonder that then leads to joy and hope,” said founder and artistic director Alecia Lawyer.
When: 8 p.m., Friday
Where: Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive
Details: Free; 713-665-2700; roco.org
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Church of St. John the Divine, 2450 River Oaks Blvd.
Details: $35; 713-665-2700; roco.org
In the case of Bielawa’s conductorless piece, which was co-commissioned by ROCO and the ASCAP Foundation Charles Kingsford Fund, such worlds are explicitly depicted in the libretto, as the text was taken from a collection of journal entries that Bielawa discovered at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass. As a fellow in the summer of 2018, Bielawa lived a mere block away from the AAS library and its accessible catalog of rare, early-American writings. During this time, she studied the diaries of 72 American women from the late 17th century to the early 20th century, representing a variety of backgrounds in regards to race, age, geography and socio-economic circumstance. As she was captivated by their words, she recalled the boredom she felt throughout her high school history class.
“It just seemed to be all about men out in the world, doing wars and signing treaties,” she said, “and there was this whole other history of America emerging in the voices of women, who were mostly at home. Seeing the whole history of the country unfold from within the domestic sphere, it was just so inspiring.”
Born in San Francisco, Bielawa grew up following in the footsteps of her musical parents, studying violin, piano and voice. She also wrote original scores in her early childhood, and although she never stopped writing music, she received her bachelor’s degree in literature from Yale University — a trajectory that has proven directly relevant to her artistic life now as a composer, particularly in projects such as this.
Drawn to the beauty within the language first and foremost, Bielawa, who is now based in New York, selected five of the 72 stories that she read. She portrays them in five movements, each of which is named after the author — Emily, a 38-year-old divorced single mother; Betsey, a freed slave in her 20s traveling on a ship to Hawaii; Angeles, a precocious, married 14-year-old Filipina; Sallie, a depressed girl living on her father’s plantation in Brazoria County, Texas; and Sarah, a bored, yet hopeful teenager residing with her family on the outskirts of Philadelphia.
The short songs offer only a quick snapshot of what life was like for these women. Yet, their vastly diverse experiences, united in this way, provide listeners with a sense of American history in its entirety, Bielawa explained.
“A lot of times when I write music, it’s because I am translating how I feel when I read something incredibly vivid,” she said. “My way of responding to that is a musical way.”
Her perspective is not the only response that the audience will witness, however. Rubin brings the fullness of these lost stories into being, transforming the women’s words into relatable emotions. Bielawa first experienced Rubin’s compelling artistry and approach when she performed with the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet in the composer’s made-for-television opera, “Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser.”
“I thought, ‘Wow, there is something very special happening here,’” Bielawa said of what she watched transpire during that rehearsal process. “She’s not blind and therefore unable to see a conductor. She’s blind and therefore she’s an expert in nonvisual musical communication. It’s about celebrating that. It’s a beautiful kind of circular ministry.”
Lawrence Elizabeth Knox is a Houston-based writer. Source.