CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The opportunity for Sophia Byrd to sing in a professional oratorio as a college freshman changed the course of her music education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It also led to two Grammy nominations for Byrd before she has finished college.
Byrd – a U. of I. senior and a soprano studying lyric theatre – was one of six vocalists who performed in “Place,” a 2018 work by composer Ted Hearne and poet Saul Williams that explores the effects of gentrification in a Brooklyn neighborhood. “Place” is nominated for Grammy Awards for best chamber music/small ensemble performance and best contemporary classical composition.
The Grammy Awards will be televised on CBS on March 14.
“Place” premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave Festival in October 2018, when Byrd was a sophomore at Illinois. A Los Angeles premiere of the work planned for March 2020 was canceled due to the pandemic. The cast produced an abridged version of the work, “Place: Quarantine Edition,” featuring videotaped live performances broadcast in July on WNYC. A recording of the music released last year garnered the Grammy nominations.
Byrd began singing at age 6 in a church choir, and she remembers a woman being moved to tears by a performance in church.
“The idea that singing a song can touch someone and shape their day, their week, their month, their year is so powerful, and it’s such a privilege and honor to do that,” Byrd said.
She sang in the Chicago Children’s Choir for 10 years, through high school. Hearne and several others involved with “Place” also are alumni of the children’s choir, and one of them suggested Byrd for the part in “Place.”
The theme of gentrification is reflected in the oratorio’s music – contemporary classical compositions influenced by rock, pop and country music, Byrd said. The complex score was very challenging to sing.
“It completely changed the way I listen to music. I’m really not interested in basic four-chord songs,” Byrd said. “I grew so much as a musician having to learn this piece. It was not only an incredible performance opportunity, but a great learning opportunity. It changed my perception of what I want to be singing and presenting to audiences.”
Byrd started as a jazz major, interested in studying jazz solos such as those performed by Ella Fitzgerald. After performing in “Place,” she became more interested in contemporary opera, and it spurred her to move to the Lyric Theatre program.
Since singing in “Place,” Byrd has appeared in two other contemporary operas that premiered in New York City – “The Good Swimmer,” about the Vietnam War, and “REV. 23,” a contemporary take on Adam and Eve in which consumption of media is the forbidden fruit.
In the Lyric Theatre program, Byrd appeared in “Crazy for You” and “Songs for a New World.” She was part of the cast that started rehearsing “A Little Night Music” before that spring 2020 production was canceled due to the pandemic.