GUILFORD -- Simply put, it’s a program of songs that need to be sung and stories that need to be told.
On Saturday afternoon, Friends of Music at Guilford and the Guilford Historical Society are collaborating to present an event for Black History Month that features a fascinating look at an important figure in local history and an equally fascinating program of songs that are seldom performed.
Titled "Lucy Terry Prince & The Black Man in Song," the event takes place on Saturday at 3 p.m., at Guilford Community Church (snow date is Sunday). The event includes an illustrated talk by Linda Hecker on early Guilford resident Lucy Terry Prince (1730-1821) and a concert of works by African-American composers featuring tenor Irwin Reese and pianist Julia Bady.
The common thread is illumination of aspects of the African-American experience, both locally and nationally.
Hecker’s interest in Lucy Terry Prince began when she found out they were neighbors.
"The Princes were neighbors of ours at Packer’s Corners," said Hecker, who for years as an educator had her student research the lives of the Princes and write about them. "I had been looking for their cellar hole ever since I moved to Packer’s Corners. It turns out, the cellar hole is less than a quarter of a mile from my house."
Lucy Terry grew up as a slave in the Ebenezer Wells household of Deerfield, Mass. Considered the earliest African-American literary figure, she authored a poem about a 1746 Indian attack on Deerfield that was handed down orally for many years before its first publication. She married Abijah Prince, a former slave and free Black man from Northfield, and raised a large family on land they bought in Guilford.
With admirable strength and courage, the Princes, who were both born slaves and later obtained freedom, worked hard to maintain their rights, standing up to the harassment of neighbors and advocating for themselves through the legal system. At one point, the Princes pleaded for their cause to the Vermont General Assembly, a remarkable occurrence in early 19th century Vermont.
Prominent in local lore as well, Abijah was long held to be part of ghost sittings in Guilford.
"There’s both historical fact and legend about them," said Hecker, a founder of Friends of Music, a violinist/violist for regional chamber ensembles and orchestras and a widely traveled education specialist for Landmark College. "We’re used to thinking about Vermont as one of the whitest states in the union. It’s refreshing to be reminded that some of our most prominent and best citizens were African-American."
Opening eyes to new perspectives is a key aspect of the second half of the program, "The Black Man in Song," presented by retired Metropolitan Opera tenor Irwin Reese and pianist Julia Bady.
It is a program of music that you may never have known existed -- art songs by early 20th century African-American composers like Margaret Bonds, William Grant Still, J. Rosamond Johnson, John W. Work, Jr., and Camille Nickerson. The program also features "The Letters" by Richard Pearson Thomas (b. 1957), the one living composer represented; commissioned by Reese in 2003, this four-part work was based on letters by noted African-American scientist, educator and inventor George Washington Carver (1864-1943). The program concludes with traditional Spirituals composed or arranged by James Miller, Virginia Lewis, Hall Johnson and Edward Boatner.
"They are gems that people don’t know about," said Reese, who assembled the program a few years ago, in part to champion these songs. "People come to me and say this is music that they’ve never heard ... and how touching it is. ... These are art songs that should be done just like Ned Rorem or Samuel Barber or Benjamin Britten."
While not overtly songs of protest and politics, they have been chosen to tell it like it is -- both the good and the bad.
"Basically, what I tried to do was find music that reflected the life of the Black man in America -- the pain, the joy, the love, the life," said Reese.
"Besides being very beautifully crafted music for both voice and piano, they tell stories about the Black experience that we need to listen to and understand," agreed Bady. "I think that music cuts through everything and just kind of connects to the emotions. ... If I weren’t up there playing, I’d be in the audience weeping."
Especially because of the way Reese can present a song. He has had a diverse career in opera and on television, as a solo recitalist and as a commercial voice-over artist. A recently retired member of the Metropolitan Opera chorus, he has also sung solo roles in many classic operas, and appeared in national and international tours of "Porgy and Bess" with the Houston Grand Opera, as well as in the world premiere of "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" with the New York City Opera. Other featured performances have included the PBS production of William Grant Still’s "A Bayou Legend."
Bady first heard Reese at a Connecticut music festival which commemorates a mutual friend. Reese was singing "This Little Light of Mine."
"I thought he had a really beautiful voice and great stage presence. It was deeply felt," Bady said.
Later, they collaborated on songs of Schubert, and then on this collection of songs.
"I feel like it’s an honor and a privilege. I feel like it’s a very important gift," said Bady. "It does feel almost like a mission."
Bady performs solo and chamber music throughout New York and New England. She teaches piano and coaches chamber music at the Northampton Community Music Center, maintains a piano studio at her home in Greenfield, Mass., and has taught in a variety of school and college settings. She is also an adjunct faculty member at the Golandsky Piano Institute for the Taubman Approach in New York City.
Reese and Bady performed a house concert a couple of years ago for Friends of Music, which is glad to have them back.
"The artistry and power of Irwin’s voice was beautifully balanced by Julia’s masterful playing and sensitivity as a collaborator. We’re excited to bring them, and this special repertoire, to the attention of a wider audience with this program," stated Friends of Music administrator Joy Wallens-Penford.
Admission to "Lucy Terry Prince & The Black Man in Song" is $10 per person at the door and includes a Colonial-style Tea Reception.
This event is presented with funding support by a Small and Inspiring grant from the Vermont Community Foundation.
Guilford Community Church, which is handicapped-accessible, is at 38 Church Drive, a bit over a mile from Exit 1 off Interstate 91. Take Route 5 south to Bee Barn Road, on the left just past the newly renovated Guilford Country Store; Bee Barn leads to Church Drive.
Now in its 48th concert season, Friends of Music is a nonprofit organization with a mission to promote the performance of music by classical and modern masters that deserves wider attention, as well as new compositions by regional composers. For more information, visit www.fomag.org, e-mail office @fomag.org, or call 802-254-3600.