Poetry and music combine

Boulder Philharmonic taps Maya Angelou's writing for performance

Angela Brown

Assembling a work of art is like putting together a puzzle: Sometimes it’s a struggle to make the pieces fit, and sometimes they just fall into place.

The latter surely happened with A Woman’s Life, a cycle of songs for soprano and orchestra by Richard Danielpour, based on seven poems by Maya Angelou. Recounting the stages of life from childhood to old age, A Woman’s Life will be presented by the Boulder Philharmonic Saturday in a program with Brahms’ German Requiem (7:30 p.m., Macky Auditorium). Joining the philharmonic and Director Michael Butterman will be soprano Angela Brown, baritone Patrick Mason and the Boulder Chorale.

Danielpour wrote A Woman’s Life for Brown after she sang in the 2005 premiere of his opera Margaret Garner. Afterwards, she asked him if he would write some songs for her. Jokingly, she decided to “go for broke,” she says, and suggested Angelou for the texts.

“He looked at me very seriously,” Brown recalls. “He said, ‘You know, she’s been like a second mother to me. I’ve known Dr. Angelou for a very long time.”

Not long after, Danielpour visited Angelou. He remembers, “I told her I wanted her to write a series of poems based on the cycle of a woman’s life, and she said, ‘I’ve already done that. They’re all hidden in my collected [poems]. I’ll read them for you.’”

And then creative lightning struck. Danielpour describes the moment: “At her dining room table in her Harlem townhouse she read eight poems, sometimes with her eyes closed, sometimes reading the book, sometimes holding our hands as if we were in a church service, and it was one of the greatest performances I’ve ever witnessed.

“We were all in tears. It was such an uplifting experience, but what was really so instructive about it was the rhythm of her speaking, and sometimes she clapped and stamped her feet — in the rhythm of her speaking I had everything I needed to set those poems, and actually it was fairly effortless to write this piece.”

Having music written for you by a leading composer, with texts by one of the country’s preeminent poets, would be a privilege for any performer. “It has been magical,” Brown says. “I feel very blessed. … It’s a wonderful piece.”

Wonderful, but also, Brown admits, a little intimidating. She says it took awhile to come to grips with the emotional center of the work.

“It chronicles a woman’s life from a little girl where she’s just babbling and talking, on to where she’s not afraid any more, on to when she’s becoming a woman and beginning to make some mistakes in life,” she says. “The last three pieces, I always say I haven’t necessarily gotten there yet, where it starts to talk about love and loss and those things that women may go through in their later years.”

Brown’s operatic experience helped her interpret Angelou’s texts.

“The only way I could relate to these pieces was to act them out,” she says. “I’ve been able to refine it so you know when I’m a little girl, you know when I’m that precocious girl that’s not scared of anything, you know when I’m that woman that thinks she’s being beguiling. This piece is one I’ve grown into.”

Butterman sees A Woman’s Life complementing Brahms’ familiar German Requiem in two ways. There’s what he calls “the feminine connection,” since Brahms was thinking of his mother and her recent death when he wrote the Requiem.

“The other part of it,” Butterman explains, is that “A Woman’s Life is a reflection back on the totality of one’s life experience — the very kind of reflection that I think Brahms asks of listeners in his Requiem. I felt in that way, they made a very nice complementary pair.”

They work well together in part, Butterman says, because Brahms chose his own Biblical texts for the German Requiem. Unlike the liturgical Requiem, it does not deal with the terror of judgment.

“Rather than focusing on the departed and the consequences of one’s life, the focus would seem to be much more on those remaining,” Butterman says. “The first reference of the text is not about the person who’s died, but ‘Blessed are they who are mourning’ — in other words, people who are still here, because they shall receive comfort. So I think the whole message of the piece is to provide some sense of comfort and of reassurance to the ones who are mourning.”

Paired together, Danielpour takes you through the stages of A Woman’s Life, and, Butterman says, “Brahms takes you across the threshold, as it were.”

That should be enough.

Boulder Philharmonic plays Macky Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23. Tickets start at $13. Visit www.boulderphil.org/concerts/the-beauty-of-life.

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