Premiere of Byna: Life Songs of a Southern Appalachian Woman Reflects on The Lifeblood of American Heritage
by Madelaine* & Roger A. Cope
Brevard, NC, November 20, 2005: A new entry has arrived in the repertoire of America chamber works. It is significant, rich in compositional style, and presented center stage in our awareness as another folkloric episode of Americana, this time from Appalachia, delivered with hypnotic artistry by the players. This one was pretty special.
The full title is Byna: Life Songs of a Southern Appalachian Woman of Cherokee Indian Descent, with lyrics by Delilah Elsen and music by Rudy Davenport. The work — in fifteen movements, or perhaps tone poems, scored for soprano, piano, oboe, and cello — lasts about an hour and fifteen minutes. It is a story and musical art, at once accessible and necessary. An important aspect of this work is acknowledgement of the Cherokee heritage in the Southern Appalachian region.
The work's creative foundation is centered on a quasi-autobiographical libretto carrying the weight of a dynamic personality in a uniquely ethnic heritage. The lyrics are drawn from Byna, a play by Delilah Elsen; ten specific passages come from the play. Elsen is originally from Western North Carolina, and Byna's Life Songs are based on her life experiences. Composer Davenport has also tapped into the well of his own mountain upbringing and extensive experience in Appalachian music. He arranged eleven sets of lyrics — ten original songs and one arrangement of an old gospel hymn — plus four instrumental interludes. The work presents the unique language of a region and the cultural heritage of the Southern Appalachians of western North Carolina, east Tennessee, north Georgia, and the northern region of South Carolina.
In the story, Byna has spent about 25 years living in a small cabin in the woods with Robert, her husband of 53 years. They lived as Cherokee Indians had lived before, in deep appreciation of their environment, as hunters and fishermen who needed game for food and made use of and appreciated everything around them. Through Byna, the songs tell of present life and recollections from her past, beginning a few months after Robert has died, and touching on the once massive indignities conveyed upon Indian culture.
For the world premiere, given at the Porter Center on the afternoon of November 20, the musicians — soprano Julia Broxholm, pianist John Cobb, oboist Kelly McElrath Vaneman, and cellist Anthony Fanning — were superb. The ensemble produced just the right balance of expertise and empathy for the material to put the listener deep in the woods amid the culture. After an opening instrumental, Broxholm's entrance was clear and faultless. She has good ability to dance just above the note and let you hear and understand the lyrics, and her well-trained, enjoyable voice is both satisfying and perfectly suited to story telling. Her beautiful command of dynamics — from pianissimo to double forte — is seemingly effortless. She is a tremendous musician.
Cobb's piano expertly rippled, conveying the undercurrent of water as a tone picture seen clearly. The oboe was often just right and precise, suggesting soaring hawks, sweet calls evocative of mountain's majesty, and low plaintive melodies. Fanning's cello, excellent and crisp, sparkled at times while sending us into the "dark woods." The story and presentation flowed from one topic (movement) to another very easily, both melodically and lyrically. Lighting changed during and between the movements as cold, cool, and warmer light was used to suggest or enhance mood.
The key personnel in this production reside in or are from this mountain region. Broxholm, formerly Professor of Voice at Brevard College, is currently on the music faculty at the University of Kansas. Pianist John Cobb, a graduate of Northwestern, student of Claudio Arrau, and Van Cliburn competition winner with a Carnegie Hall debut in 1976, lives in nearby Asheville. Kelly Vaneman, a graduate of both Baylor and Yale, is Professor of Oboe and Music History at the Petrie School of Music in Spartanburg, SC. Cellist Fanning is currently a graduate student at Petrie with study and performance background in Vermont and New York. Davenport grew up near the Nantahala National Forest in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
The performance was supported by the American Composers Forum through its Encore program; Meet the Composer, through the Southern Arts Federation; and the National Endowment for the Arts. There was a pre-concert exhibition of baskets in the Porter Center lobby, presented by the Cherokee Qualla Arts and Crafts Co- op. Cherokee artist Faren Sanders Crews displayed original pieces of artwork, inspired by the texts of Byna.
The Georgia Premiere will be at 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday, March 7, 2006, at Young Harris College, Young Harris, Georgia. Additional performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 8*, 2006, at Blue Ridge Community College, Flat Rock, NC, and at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, April 2, 2006, at Shelton House, Haywood Arts Repertory Theatre, Waynesville, NC. Updates will be posted at http://www.rudydavenport.com/ [inactive 1/07].