CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The University of Illinois School of Music is presenting a special concert April 29 featuring the musical drama “August 4, 1964,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky.
The concert will be the Illinois premiere of the work, which was written by Stucky to commemorate the centennial of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s birth. It explores two historic events that occurred on the same day – the discovery of the bodies of three slain civil rights workers in Mississippi and the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which drew the U.S. into the Vietnam War.
“It’s a really beautiful work, and it’s only been performed by one group, the Dallas Symphony. I thought it suited our choruses well,” said Andrew Megill, the director of choral activities at the University of Illinois School of Music, who will conduct the concert.
The concert, at 7:30 p.m. April 29 in Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, will feature U. of I. choral ensembles Chamber Singers, Oratorio Society and Women’s Glee Club; the University Symphony Orchestra; and guest soloists soprano Ollie Watts Davis of the School of Music, mezzo-soprano Kathleen Flynn, tenor Scott Williamson and baritone David Newman.
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky wrote “August 4, 1964” to commemorate the centennial of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s birth. The oratorio explores the issues of civil rights and American military power through two events that happened on the same day.
Photo by Hoebermann Studio
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Megill said he was drawn to the subject matter of the oratorio, which seems particularly relevant now, with the Black Lives Matter campaign and questions about how America should respond militarily in various places around the world.
“There’s been a resurgence of the issues this piece is about – civil rights and American military power around the world. It seems the central struggles of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 were those two things,” Megill said.
“In dealing with a topic that is so important but also so heated, I like that it doesn’t profess to know the answers so much as to ask vital and important questions,” he said of the work. “It seems to dovetail with the purpose of an educational institution, to raise the level of dialogue.”
The School of Music is offering free concert tickets to area high school music teachers and their students who want to see the performance.
Stucky, who died in February, composed music for major orchestras around the world and was the resident composer for the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 21 years. He won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in music for his “Second Concerto for Orchestra.”
“This is the first performance of one of his biggest pieces and most extended works after his death. It’s a tribute to him and his place in the world of classical music,” Megill said.
The oratorio includes expressive movements featuring the mothers of the murdered men contrasting with tense, energetic, mechanistic music accompanying the scenes in the Oval Office as America is pushed into war. The two stories ask the question, what makes a person truly great?
Megill said the piece is challenging to perform, partly because of its use of harmonic language modeled on jazz chords and partly because the point of view of the chorus changes throughout the work. The chorus sometimes speaks as characters in the action – a mob in a riot scene, for example. At other times, it acts as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action.
In addition to “August 4, 1964,” the concert will include two other pieces, Verdi’s “Stabat Mater” and Brahms’ “Nänie,” both of which portray mothers grieving the loss of their sons.
“It’s one of the other reasons I love doing this piece,” Megill said. “With the Verdi and Brahms pieces, I believe passionately that music is relevant to us today. It’s easy to forget that and listen to them as background, wallpaper music. To have them in the same program as a piece whose relevance is unavoidable opens up our ears to show that Brahms and Verdi are also relevant.”
Prior to the concert, Gene Scheer, the librettist for “August 4, 1964,” will participate in a panel discussion at 6:30 p.m. April 29 in Foellinger Great Hall. The panel will discuss the creation of “August 4, 1964,” its social and historical background, and its relevance today.
The music school organized other events around the performance as well. It screened the movie “Mississippi Burning” at the Art Theatre Co-op on April 18, and it held miniworkshops for performers during one day of rehearsal. The miniworkshops included discussions of how the events portrayed in the musical drama were covered in mainstream and African-American newspapers, and of a painting by Normal Rockwell of the civil rights workers who were murdered. The performers saw copies of the applications the civil rights workers made to work for the Congress of Racial Equality.
Megill said those events have affected how the members of the chorus perform.
“Those characters are no longer fictional characters whose names we say,” he said. “They have a place in our visual lives now. They feel very real and tangible.”