The Arts Fusion Initiative Summer Grant project was born out of a desire to create innovative concert programs that combine elements of music, dance, and drama while exposing them them to communities outside New York. By centering the design of the project around one poem—Frank O’Hara’s A True Account of Talking With the Sun at Fire Island (1958)—I wanted all of the artists to have creative say in the direction of the concert. Having already determined that the live music ensemble would consist of violin, cello, and piano, I asked each artist to internalize the poem and search for music that connected them most to the poetry. The only stipulation was that the music must be from American composers and be adaptable for any combination of those three instruments. I chose Copland’s Sonata for Violin and Piano and Samuel Barber’s Nocturne Op. 13, No. 4; the other artists’ selections and thoughts about their contributions appear later on.
What was most exciting for me through this process was seeing the different elements of the poem come to life through each artist. In this way I hoped that our connection to each other and to the poem would overwhelm us, and consequently overwhelm our audience. Our performances, which were given at concert halls in Kansas, were around 60 minutes and flowed from musical work to musical work with no breaks.
It was one of the most inspiring collaborations I have ever experienced. As we had no overall director, this concert program truly represented all eight artists. The dancers brought the stage alive with new choreography and interesting staging. Third-year singer Jake Alan Nelson was the embodiment of our two characters, Frank O’Hara and the Sun, in both the spoken word and song. He was also responsible for our incredible light design, which enhanced each mood shift, gently directing the focus of our audience. The other two musicians and I were constantly inspired by the energy from the dancers, Jake’s intuitive timing in his acting, and each other’s playing. Gabriel Medina’s new composition highlighted the inspirational message from the Sun to Frank. During every performance, I had to look away from Jake’s interaction with Cleo [Person] in that moment of tenderness and encouragement or I would have teared up and not been able to continue playing!
“There are a lot of hateful things that happen in the world that can block out the light at times,” Nelson wrote. “I believe we choose and are chosen to capture this light to present through our art. I think O’Hara wants us to hear the same thing in order to be encouraged.”
Third-year dancer Kyle Weiler chose the Largo from Bernstein’s Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello because “the combination of sounds reminded me of the whimsy of O’Hara’s words” and the piece “challenged my ear and reminded me of what I feel the moment after I am ‘called to create.’”
Violin alum Maria Im picked the Andantino of faculty member John Corigliano’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, noting, “the simplicity of the theme mixed with the overlay of more intricate ideas and complicated techniques reminded me of the text’s similar layout.”
Composition alum Gabriel Medina said he was drawn to the poem “because of its modest contemplation of artistic merit and the creative pursuit” along with its accessibility and ability to create empathy.
Noting that there’s often “so much pressure when creating that it’s difficult to even begin,” third-year dancer Cleo Person was struck by the creative freedom she felt when reading a line in the poem in which the Sun tells the narrator, “just keep on like I do and pay no attention.” She set her choreography to Willie “The Lion” Smith’s Passionette and Fading Star.
Inspired by this line in the poem—“I know you love Manhattan, but you ought to look up more often”—third-year dancer Taylor Johnson thought about “the feeling you get when you look up, breathe, and open your eyes to all the architecture from centuries ago to the present.” The music she picked was George Gershwin’s Prelude No. 2 for piano.
Cello alum Colin Stokes chose faculty member and alum Philip Lasser’s Vocalise for Cello and Piano because it struck him as a musical description of the “mysterious and unresolved felling of the final two stanzas” of O’Hara’s poem.
This project surpassed every expectation from the creative output of our group to all the incredible support from far too many people to name here, but we’re incredibly grateful to each one. We did what we set out to do: inspire the hearts and minds of our captive audience across the heartland. And now we’re doing everything we can to ensure that the initiative can continue.
Place Garden City and Lawrence, Kan.; Kansas City, Mo.
Project Arts Fusion Initiative
Dates September 2, 4, 6
Juilliard Participants Collaborative piano student Kristen Doering; voice student Jake Alan Nelson; dance students Kyle Weiler, Cleo Person, and Taylor Johnson; and alums Colin Stokes (cello), Maria Im (violin), and Gabriel Medina (composition)