We were contacted this past summer by Matt Camrud, a former CAE Board member and highly accomplished pianist. His beloved mother, Cynthia Larson, passed away last February, and he wanted to explore ways of celebrating her life. Since she, too, loved choral music, Matt wondered if a new commission might be undertaken in her honor.
As the possibilities and timings were sifted, we decided to ask Jeffrey Van if he might have time, in spite of rather short notice, to create a work for our March concert. It turns out, in spite of Jeff's dauntingly full schedule in "retirement," he did. After reading Cynthia's obituary, sent by Matt, Jeffrey responded enthusiastically: "What an eminently worthwhile project to write a piece to honor such a person."
Matt then shared this information:
"At her memorial service, I played Chopin's "Raindrop Prelude" in her memory. I set it up by saying that the A section of the piece is a beautiful D flat major tune which transitions into a darker, more haunting minor B section, which then gives way once again to the major A section. I told those attending that it reminded me of her life, with the B section representing her battle with dementia and the A section reprisal representing her passing into her loving God's arms where she is finally free from suffering."
Jeff immediately resonated with the A1-B-A2 structure idea, and the search for texts was on! First he found, to represent the battle with dementia, two astoundingly apt poems by Sara Teasdale, the first lines from "Grey Fog," the last one from "Crystal Gazer:"
A fog drifts in, the heavy laden
Cold white ghost of the sea---
One by one the hills go out,
The road and the pepper-tree.
I watch the fog float in at the window
With the whole world gone blind,
Everything, even my longing, drowses,
Even the thoughts in my mind.
I put my head on my hands before me,
There is nothing left to be done or said,
There is nothing to hope for, I am tired,
And heavy as the dead.
I shall gather myself into myself again,
I shall take my scattered selves and make them one.
Then he found a poem by Christina Rossetti for the A2 section:
My harvest is done, its promise is ended,
Weak and watery sets the sun,
Day and night in one mist are blended,
My harvest is done.
Long while running, how short when run,
Time to eternity has descended,
Timeless eternity has begun.
Matt and I were stunned with how beautiful these poems are, and eerily appropriate for this specific work!
But we had no A1 section.
Matt then remarked that his mom loved natural beauty, and he included a picture of a bench that he and his sister gave as a donation to Quarry Hill Nature Center. The quote on the bench was from John Muir, one of her favorite writers:
"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul."
Then Matt mentioned that his mom loved birds, and he remembered one specific trip to a Florida aviary, where the birds would actually land right on you--"she was giddy with joy in that place." He sent a picture of her with a bird in the hand, literally, and a huge grin on her face.
So Jeff browsed some writings of John Muir, and just two weeks ago, emailed excitedly with "I believe I have it:"
The day opens slowly; the red clouds dissolve in hazy dimness.
As the day advances, the sun-flood lights the water and the sky to glowing silver.
The warm air makes itself felt as a life-giving, energizing ocean, quickening the imagination.
Through the afternoon, the day grows in beauty.
Bird choirs in the grove sweeten the brooding stillness;
and the sky, land, and water meet and blend in one inseparable scene of enchantment.
Matt and I agreed that it was absolutely perfect for the opening section. Partly this was serendipity, partly Jeff Van's hard work, creativity, and eye for good text.
But I think Matt's effort to help us know and understand his mother was crucial--through the obituary, the pictures, his fond memories--all this was, as Jeff so aptly put it, "a window into her personality and activities, which I found both useful and inspiring."
Why do we sing, why does Jeff compose, why do audiences respond? We all cherish art's power to invoke the transcendent--to help a family express a life and love for which mere words inevitably fall short. Their celebration is our celebration, and it is a privilege to share in it.
We all are eagerly looking forward to singing PATHWAYS by Jeffrey Van in March!