The UT Symphony Orchestra is poised to present the academic premiere of Knoxville: Summer of 2015, a musical sequel to Samuel Barber’s famous Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which featured lyrics borrowed from James Agee’s poem of a similar name.
The concert, which is a collaboration of the School of Music and the Department of Theatre and will feature instrumental, vocal and text performances, will be presented at 7:30 p.m. October 30 at the Tennessee Theater, 604 South Gay Street. Tickets go on sale today at the Tennessee Theatre box office, tennesseetheatre.com, or at ticketmaster.com.
Knoxville: Summer of 2015 was written by Oak Ridge native Ellen Reid, a young composer who has quickly become a rising star in her field, and noted librettist Royce Vavrek, who wrote the lyrics for the acclaimed opera Dog Days and the soon-to-premiere JFK and O Columbia. The piece was commissioned by the New York–based Beth Morrison Projects and Vision Into Art.
“Presenting the first performance of this piece, which eventually will be premiered on a national stage, is a real celebration of the arts at UT,” said Katy Wolfe, a voice instructor in the Department of Theatre, who is the local producer of the performance and will sing the new work. Other students and faculty will also be performing in the concert.
Wolfe—who was Reid’s voice teacher when Reid was in high school— is the connection that brought the academic premiere to UT.
Knoxville: Summer of 2015 is intended to be a follow-up to Knoxville: Summer of 1915, composed by Barber in 1947. Barber’s seventeen-minute piece sets to music excerpts from the prose poem “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” which Agee wrote in 1938 when he was a twenty-nine-year-old poet and magazine writer. That piece—a nostalgic recollection of an idyllic summer night in Knoxville when he was five years old— later became a preamble to Agee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book, A Death in the Family.
“We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child ….
“It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds’ hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by….”
“After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.”
—excerpts from Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Knoxville: Summer of 2015 was conceived by Reid and Vavrek over dinner with their producer. Knowing that Reid was from this area, Vavrek suggested they create a sequel to Barber’s well-known Knoxville piece.
In a way, Reid said, it was serendipitous. A couple of years ago, at a theater in Malibu, California, she worked with James Agee’s son on Prometheus Bound, a musical play that she scored and he scripted.
“Within a week of deciding we’d do Knoxville: Summer of 2015, I contacted UT about being involved and they were like ‘Let’s do this,'” Reid said.
Last fall, Wolfe arranged to a bring Reid and Vavrek to campus to for a short residency. They lectured about their work and spent time interacting with the UT Symphony and its conductor, Jim Fellenbaum.
The creative duo also took time to immerse themselves in UT and the Knoxville area.
“I spent the majority of my life in East Tennessee,” Reid said. “I think it’s one of the most visually stunning places on the planet.
“I think it’s a privilege to understand a place and be inspired by it.”
Reid and Wolfe took Vavrek to Dollywood, a UT football game, and the Smoky Mountains.
“We exposed Royce to a lot, and that eventually wove its way into his text,” Reid said.
After Vavrek finished the lyrics, he turned them over to Reid to compose the music.
Like Agee’s piece, Vavrek’s is about an adult reminiscing about family, life, and East Tennessee. It is set during this person’s return visit to Knoxville in 2015 to celebrate a great-grandfather’s 100th birthday.
“Royce was very specific about word count and format, wanting it to be very similar to Agee’s piece that Barber used,” Reid said. “With that in mind, I thought it would be a good exercise to not change a thing.”
Reid said she’s using the same instrumentation as Barber.
“I think this piece has a lot of softness and warmth, but there’s also some existential anxiety as well,” she said. “It’s a piece about memory, about family, about the way our world is right now.”
“The hayloft of my family’s barn offers the broadest view of the Smoky Mountains. To an outside eye, to an ear not tuned to the correct frequency, it would seem all but forgotten: the stalls haven’t lined livestock in years; the dust in which we’d scrawl our names as clumsy-fingered children swept away; the echo of your voice the only illusion of company.
“I make my way through the sea of relatives, my face foreign to most as I seldom return to Knoxville. I hear gulps of gossip from women my mother calls insufferable… And I hear their reminiscences: ‘simpler times, better times, harder times.’ They relive their personal truths. Before dusk I sneak away to my family’s barn, the barn that offers the broadest view of the Smoky Mountains. But the view is not as broad as I recall. Have my memories already begun their ultimate betrayal?”
—excerpt from Knoxville: Summer of 2015
Reid, who has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Columbia University in New York and a Master of Fine Arts from the California Institute of the Arts, has been working on the musical score for about three months.
“If I’m really kicking ass, I can write ten minutes a month of music, total. And that’s pretty good,” she said.
She expects to have the composition nearly complete by the end of September, when she returns to Knoxville to have a first run-through with the UT Symphony Orchestra.
Hearing her work in progress performed and having the chance to tweak it on the spot is a luxury a composer doesn’t always get, Reid said.
“Even though it works in your imagination, sometimes it doesn’t work,” she said. “Some of it you only understand when you’re in the room listening to it and when you’re in the room with other people experiencing it.”
Jeff Pappas, director of the School of Music, said he was on board with the project as soon as he learned about it.
“When Katy brought this opportunity to our school, I jumped on it,” said Jeff Pappas, director of the School of Music. “Not only for the historical significance of the pairing of the piece with the Barber, but the opportunity for our students to premiere a work and go through this creative process with a composer and lyricist.
“Being able to add a partnership with our Department of Theatre was the icing on the cake. Just as no one knew where Barber’s work would go in 1947, were not sure where this new work will go. One thing we do know, and that’s that it was given its premiere performance where it should have been—in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Reid, too, said she feels like the piece has lasting potential.
“It’s a touchstone for our time,” she said. “Hopefully in 100 years someone will write another one.”
Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, ablakely.edu)