A one-of-a-kind conference

Music Theory faculty create unique song cycle showcase.

Some conferences focus on academics. Some focus on performance. Rarely the two converge.

Music Theory faculty at the MSU College of Music changed that. In early spring, Associate Professors of Music Theory Michael Callahan and Gordon Sly organized a weekend exploration of art song through their very own hybrid form of conference in Cook Recital Hall.

Associate Professor and Chair of the Music Theory Area Michael Callahan presents during the scholarly side of the unique “20th- and 21st-Century Song Cycles for Voice and Piano" conference in Cook Recital Hall.
Following the performance of From the Diary of Sally Hemings, a discussion included (from left) visiting piano faculty member Sheryl Iott, soprano, actress and playwright Joelle Lamarre, playwright Sandra Seaton, and MSU faculty Michael Callahan.
Conference organizers Gordon Sly (left) and Michael Callahan, both associate professors in Music Theory, field questions following one of the 14 presentations.

Callahan and Sly agreed that the nuanced structure of “20th- and 21st-Century Song Cycles for Voice and Piano” mirrored the art form they wished to showcase. As a genre, a song cycle consists of a group of individually complete songs performed as a unit, and paired with text or poetry that explores timely or current issues.

In a display of serendipity, Callahan and Sly devised a conference with a blended format to examine significant musical works from both a scholarly and performance perspective. The goal, they say, was to consider deeper meaning in musical works of the past 100 years, and to hear the song cycles that reflect those issues.

“We see people who are curious about pieces of music, who seek to understand them more deeply,” Callahan said. “And we see people who are moved by the pieces and want to perform and experience them. These two approaches are not necessarily separate.”

Callahan says the conference was intended to foster dialog between the two approaches. Faculty and visiting scholars presented their analytical insights on pieces, while students and guest performers brought song cycles to life through voice and piano. In several cases, the presenter also took part in the performance as either pianist or vocalist. Post-performance discussions combined these two perspectives, welcoming audience members to ask questions of both performers and scholars.

“If we left with a short list of striking memories from the conference it was simply the number of people who were effusive in their praise of the conference format,” said Sly. “It became clear that the academic conferences that we attend regularly don’t have a performance component—and that can leave a lot of people less than satisfied. People were really thrilled with the performances attached to the academic presentations—and vice versa.”

Following the "From the Diary of Sally Hemings" scholarly presentation, vocalist Joelle Lamarre performs with Grand Rapids Community College piano faculty Sheryl Iott, pianist, assisted by Associate Professor of Music Theory Gordon Sly.

The significance of song

The weekend conference was held April 20-22 in Cook Recital Hall and other locations in the MSU Music Building. From Friday through Sunday, performers and presenters filled the stage for a total of 14 events. People could attend all or part of the conference sessions. All sessions were free and open to the public, with livestreaming of some sessions sponsored by the MSU Alumni Association.

“Song cycles have a depth and capacity to explore meaning. They have music. They have texture. They have poetry. They carry a significance that can be real to many people,” Sly said. “Some of these pieces have been important in the course of my life.”

Soprano, actress and playwright Joelle Lamarre was deeply moved by the song cycle she performed alongside pianist Sheryl Iott. Composed by William Bolcom in 2001, “From the Diary of Sally Hemings” featured text by Sandra Seaton, an MSU alumnae and playwright. The song cycle examined the life of Sarah “Sally” Hemings—an enslaved mixed-race woman owned by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson.  

“This piece can teach us to really go into your own life and understand your history for yourself,” Lamarre said. “Don’t lose your history. Don’t lose who you are as a person. Understand what it is that you want to do as a person.”

Callahan and Sly chaired five sessions comprised of 14 pairs of presentations, performances and discussions. Among some of the song cycles were works by Samuel Barber paired with text by Robert Graves, James Joyce and Theodore Roethke; music of Dmitri Shostakovich with text by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; a composition by George Crumb set to text by Walt Whitman, and music by Libbey Larsen with poetry by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The conference brought together performers and presenters from across the U.S. as well as from MSU. Participants were selected through a proposal process leading up to the conference. Based on positive response and feedback, the College hopes to find resources and support to host the conference on a recurring basis.

“It was very exciting to see the high-level of performances and the excitement that was generated,” Sly explained. “The conference showcased so many things, including the College’s network of extraordinary talent, including scholars, guest artists, local performers, and MSU students.”

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