Handel Society commissions new work for birthday

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(Host) The oldest town and gown society in the country is celebrating a birthday.

The Handel Society of Dartmouth College was established two hundred years ago.

At the time the college was concerned about rising secularism on campus and wanted to expose students to the music of the church.

The Handel Society is marking its bicentennial by performing a work specially commissioned for the occasion.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

“Lets try that from here (piano)”

(Zind) Two hundred years after its members first came together; the Dartmouth Handel Society is still making music.

(Vocal exercise)

(Zind) In the course of two centuries, the Handel Society has weathered some fallow periods, but today it mounts three major performances each year, using a professional orchestra and professional soloists.

The society’s 90 members are not professionals. They’re Dartmouth students, faculty and staff, plus a good number of area residents – like Tunbridge dairy farmer Robert Howe.

(Howe) “There’s a lot of excitement in singing with the Handel Society. It’s challenging, it’s an opportunity to sing with a wonderful vocal group. I have learned so much.”

(Piano plays)

(Zind) To celebrate this milestone in its history, the Handel Society has, for the first time, commissioned a new work. Fire and Ice is based on the poetry of Robert Frost.

The society’s Director and Conductor Robert Duff says Philadelphia composer Andrea Clearfield steeped herself in Frost and in New England to write Fire and Ice .

(Duff) “Early in the process, we spent some time riding up to Frost’s place in Franconia, listening to recordings of Frost reciting poems that he had recorded when he was lecturing here in Webster Hall.”

(Zind) To help her compose, Clearfield measured the duration of vowels and words in the Frost reading. She says his cadences provided musical cues for the piece.

(Clearfield) “In the poem ‘Fire and Ice’ in particular, his reading has a very specific rhythm that is incorporated into the musical texture.”

“Some say the world will end in fire. Some say
in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice

(Zind) The music here is from a recent Handel society rehearsal, without the orchestra that will join the group on Saturday.

Clearfield used 8 Frost poems as the lyrics for “Fire and Ice”.

(Clearfield) “I have a picture of Frost that’s been with me for a year now as I’ve been writing. There are certain things that I think about as I’m working the immediacy of the poems but yet the underlying layers of sometimes irony or ambiguity, questioning the meaning of life and also a sense of inevitability.

Retard the sun with gentle mist, retard the sun with gentle mist,
Enchant the land with amethyst.”

(Zind) Dartmouth senior Elizabeth Terry is a member of the Handel Society. For Terry and the others singers, Fire and Ice is a challenging work.

(Terry) “It’s a very difficult work. It’s very interesting the way she weaves imagery into the chord structure. I think the end product is going to be beautiful.”

(Zind) Composer Andrea Clearfield says Fire and Ice’ ends with a question: How will the art of the future continue to speak to us?

It’s a question for all artists in general and for the Handel Society in particular as it enters its third century.

For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind.

Note: The Handel Society of Dartmouth College will perform Fire and Ice Saturday night at 8 o’clock at Spaulding Auditorium.

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