BETHEL — On Saturday, Feb. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the West Parish Congregational Church, an array of vocalists and instrumental musicians will present a concert of the poetry of Richard Blanco set to original music.

Tom Davis, a Bethel native who is a retired minister of music, wrote the musical score and will direct the performance.

The concert will be performed by a chorus of 30 local voices, accompanied by a string quartet from the Portland Symphony and collaborating musicians on instruments that include piano, Native American drum and flute, keyboard and drums.

It is Davis’ second concert of Blanco’s poetry set to music.

The first, which featured his original score for the 2013 Presidential inaugural poem, “One Today,” was performed in October of 2016.

Ever since then, Davis said, people have been asking him, “When are you going to do that again?”

At the end of last summer, the poet approached him and asked what he thought about the idea of writing music to accompany some of the poems that appear in Blanco’s new collection, “Boundaries.”

The new book, released in a limited fine art edition of 300 copies by Two Ponds Press in Rockport, is a collaboration with contemporary Maine landscape photographer Jacob Bond Hessler.

Blanco’s poetry is paired with Hessler’s photography to “investigate the visible and invisible boundaries of race, gender, class and ethnicity, among many others,” according to the Two Ponds Press website.

Davis readily agreed to Blanco’s suggestion.

“That was what I needed, a reason to do it,” he said.

Blanco provided him with four poems, and Davis chose three to set to music.

As with the 2016 concert, which included several shorter musical pieces in addition to “One Today,” Davis said he is seeking to emphasize unity and commonality with “words that lead us into a positive direction.”

In the first half of the concert, Blanco will introduce and discuss his new work. The second half will be a repeat performance of the music and words of “One Today.”

“It’s going to be a very powerful, rich program, for a lot of reasons,” Davis said.

Studio recording

“This is a two-sided project, and the writing and performing are wonderful, but the organizing is stressful. There are a lot of facets to it,” he said.

The organizational challenges included bringing together the 30 chorus members, the string quartet and the collaborating musicians for rehearsals and the performance.

“We started planning the schedule last summer in order to find a date that worked for everyone,” Davis said.

In addition to the live performance, he is making a studio recording of the music at The Outlook Recording Studio in Bethel and will provide copies to the participants.

The instrumental musicians will be in the studio to record the various tracks during the days leading up to the live performance, and the chorus will record their part the day after the concert.

“What I want is a really good recording of this music that we can be proud of,” he said, adding, “I’m trying to create something that represents the music and the poetry well.”

The poems

“Richard Blanco’s poems are very challenging to set to music because they are not metered, and they are not rhymed,” Davis said.

“Because of that, I was forced to work from within the text to capture every nuance.”

He described the musical arrangement for Blanco’s poem “Cloud Anthem” as an “art song.”

The poem, which draws connections between humans and the moods and characteristics of clouds, “didn’t fit into any particular musical style,” he said.

“The music changes meters constantly to allow the words to have freedom.”

Another poem, “Complaint of the Rio Grande,” looks at the world through the eyes of the river.

“I really was flooded with ideas for this piece,” Davis said.

The poem is organized into stanzas, which allowed him to apply the words to the tune of a Dakota hymn, and the chorus will be accompanied by musicians playing the Native American flute and drum.

“I feel a lot of responsibility to make sure the words are heard,” he said, noting that the flute is heard between the poem’s verses and “builds from sparse and simple to pretty emotional, then trails off.”

The third poem, “Declaration of Inter-Dependence,” contrasts the excerpts from the Declaration of Independence that introduce each stanza with verses that “describe how real life has played out,” Davis said.

His arrangement features a trio of musicians who play in a jazz/funk/hip-hop style.

Keyboardist Anna Sysko, who co-wrote the music for this piece with Davis, is joined by rap soloist Justin Bondeson and drummer Riley Kern.

“Each of these poems is powerful, and each of them spoke to me in a different way musically,” Davis said.

Artists’ reception

The 7:30 p.m. performance on Feb. 17 will be preceded by a reception to introduce the newly formed Bethel Area Arts and Music (BAAM), a collaborative network with a focus on all types of art, which emerged from the reorganization of the former Mahoosuc Arts Council, Davis said.

“BAAM will be a network of support for all artists in the area. It will be very inclusive, creating opportunities for artists of all kinds, and will be a grant-making entity,” he said.

The reception is open to all artists and anyone with an interest in the arts. It will be held at 6 p.m. in the basement hall of the West Parish Congregational Church.

BAAM, Western Mountains Senior College, and Norway Savings Bank are supporting organizations for the Feb. 17 concert.

Tickets for the concert will be available at the door. A suggested donation of $10 per person will help to defray the costs of the production. In case of inclement weather, the snow date will be the following evening, Feb. 18, at 7:30 p.m.

Richard Blanco

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