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This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on October 7, 1998. All rights reserved.
Brubeck: Take Five, Give Back
Nudging Dave Brubeck, America's grand old man of jazz, into writing an hour-long choral work for children and young people, as Sue Ellen Page has done, is an impressive feat. To act as spark plug and drive shaft for a major new composition by this artist is a major achievement. Equally impressive, however, is Page's personal style. For Page, the connections between personal beliefs and public acts seem frictionless and flowing.
Page conducts the Choirs for Children and Youth of the Nassau Presbyterian Church and the Trenton Children's Chorus in the world premiere of Dave Brubeck's "Hold Fast to Dreams" in two concerts at Richardson Auditorium on Saturday, October 10. Pianist Brubeck and his quartet provide the instrumental backing for the work at both a 2 p.m. family concert, and at the 7:30 p.m. gala performance. Proceeds from the concerts benefit the church's Princeton Outreach Projects, which provide services for families and children in Princeton and Trenton through the Crisis Ministry, the Trenton After School Program, and the Trenton Children's Chorus.
"Hold Fast to Dreams" sets poetry by Langston Hughes for youth choir, children's chorus, and two pairs of soloists. The afternoon family concert includes an introductory discussion about jazz, poetry, and Langston Hughes. Participants include composer Brubeck; Donald Gibson, a Rutgers professor and expert on the poetry of Hughes; and Russell Gloyd, conductor of Brubeck's band.
Page, whose ideas and efforts inspired the project, describes the structure of the new Brubeck work. "The children sing about the right of every child to have wonderful things happen to them, to sit and read and dream, and have gifts of freedom," she says. "It's not preachy. That's what the Langston Hughes poetry is about. The soloists, Rochelle Ellis, soprano, and Kevin Deas, baritone, have a more mature theme -- the difficulties of holding fast to dreams. Brubeck was seeking a way to connect the poetry of Hughes, sung by the children, with the soprano and baritone solos. So he wrote three duets to be sung by young singers. They're the intermediary, tying everything together."
The two young soloists are Amanda Page Johnson, Sue Ellen's daughter and an alumna of the church youth choir, and Carrie James, an alumna of Trenton Children's Chorus. "As I sensed what Brubeck was trying to do," says Page, "I told him about these two young women with enormous talents, who are passionate about teaching music." Amanda is a music education major at St. Olaf's College in Northfield, Minnesota; Carrie is a music education major at Westminster Choir College.
After a slow start that began with Page's proposal in April, 1995, Brubeck's work gradually gathered momentum. Work began formally in August, 1997. "I asked Brubeck that the texts be on dreams, hope, and vision, and I proposed some scriptural references," Page recalls.
"But Brubeck's muse was not working for that. Then I suggested Langston Hughes' `Hold Fast to Dreams' as a link to scripture. I like poetry, and always look for poems that will stay in a child's mind. I sent him the Arnold Rampersad collection of 860 Hughes poems and melodies were popping all over the place. First he set three of the poems. Then there were 18. As late as July, yet another poem arrived. Originally, I thought the piece would be 20 minutes, with improvisations. It grew to be an hour without improvisations. Iola, Brubeck's wife, is the person who helped put the poems into a cohesive whole."
Page sings the setting of "Hold Fast to Dreams" over the telephone. It is a simple song, with some well-placed blue notes, a good match for the eight-line text.
Hold fast to dreams For if dreams die Life is a broken-winged bird That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams For when dreams go Life is a barren field Frozen with snow.
Page's husband, her father, and her four brothers all plan to attend the performances. Husband Eric Johnson, who founded Lawrenceville Family Therapy Associates in 1984, is a family therapist in private practice. Her father, a retired church musician, will fly in from his home in Phoenix, Arizona, and Page's two musician brothers fly in from Los Angeles, California. Two other brothers will arrive from Arizona and from Iowa.
Among the four sponsors of the Brubeck commission are the Joyce Page Memorial Fund, established by members of Nassau Presbyterian in memory of Sue Ellen's mother, who died in 1996. As director of the Phoenix Boys' Choir for 25 years, she tried to make available to all boys the opportunity to sing in a choir, regardless of their financial situation. She lived long enough to know about the Brubeck commission.
Sue Ellen Page, 49, was born in Iowa. Her father, who earned a business degree from Iowa's Grinnell College, minored in music, his heartfelt interest, and by graduation, had more credits in his minor than in his major. When Sue Ellen was four, he moved his family to Princeton in order to earn a master's degree in church music from Westminster Choir College. "He never regretted it," says his daughter. In Princeton, Page's mother also attended Westminster, studying organ and voice.
The family lived in Alabama, for eight years. Page spent the first years of high school in Santa Monica, California, after which the family moved to Phoenix. She returned to Westminster to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in sacred music. "I became a dyed-in-the-wool easterner for my professional career," she says.
Since 1982 she has directed the Music Ministry for Children and Youth at Nassau Presbyterian where she oversees a battery of choirs for children ranging from age four to high school, and also the Trenton Children's Chorus, which is open to children in grades two through eight. Each group has separate weekly rehearsals. In addition, approximately 20 children from each of the ensembles comprise the Covenant Singers, a group that meets for a second weekly rehearsal and sings in concert settings and on a spring tour.
One of the stated purposes of the common sponsorship of the two groups is to provide a way for children from different backgrounds to have the opportunity to get to know one another through shared artistic endeavor. Combined performances drawing on the young people from Princeton and Trenton are frequent and they have served as the children's chorus for productions of Opera Festival of New Jersey and the Boheme Opera Company of Trenton.
Each fall, for Westminster's Sacred Music department, Page teaches a course in training young voices. She has conducted teacher-training workshops and led choral festivals for young people in almost every state in the country, and also abroad. Responsible for numerous musical arrangements and compositions, she is also the author of the book "Hearts and Hands and Voices," published in 1995.
Page has a distinctive philosophy of teaching music to children. She requires no auditions for her choirs. "Just as every child learns to speak," she says, "we all can learn to sing. Everybody goes through the same stages. By consistent early experience matching pitches, and attending to the quality of vocal sound, everybody can learn to sing in a choir.
"I distinguish between choral singing and recreational singing," she continues. "Choral singing requires a particular technique that encompasses tone production, getting cues from the conductor, learning how to shape vowels, and learning to read music. There's nothing wrong with recreational singing, but in a choir we don't include belting or undersinging."
Page also has a distinctive way of communicating her ideas about technique. "For good tone," she begins, "we need to know how to hold our body, and how to inhale and exhale. We sing our vowels north and south, not east and west. Vowels have to stand up in our mouth, not be squished. The pear-shaped tone that we seek comes from imagining a pear in our mouth, with the fat end at the back."
Brubeck's "Hold Fast to Dreams" is difficult music, says Page. "It's jazz, so there are lots of half steps. The kids have risen to the occasion. If we break music off in chunks, in size they can understand they can learn amazing amounts." Page talks about the jump in competence that came from working on the Brubeck piece. Post-Brubeck, she says, "I brought out something difficult for my senior highs. They just nailed it."
Page's concerns are wider than just the music. "As a full-time church musician, it is of great concern to me that churches, in recent decades, have experienced a shift to a more subjective focus. A focus on the inner self has affected worship styles. The upshot has been poor theology coupled with music you could hear on a pop TV show or on MTV."
In her book "Hearts and Hands and Voices," Page provides a serviceable antidote to the problem, one that applies beyond hymnody. "We must make judicious choices," she writes, "ask good questions, and not be afraid to challenge anything that claims intrinsic value simply because a lot of people like it."
-- Elaine Strauss
In a telephone conversation from his home in rural Connecticut, Dave Brubeck is very much the humanitarian, concerned about giving the arts a chance to bring hope to people of all ages. He comes to Princeton to participate in the world premiere of his "Hold Fast to Dreams," based on the poetry of Langston Hughes.
Self-effacing, Brubeck evades the question of his using music to make the world a better place, and defers to the author of the text he has set. "Langston Hughes writes about how to make the world a better place," he says. "He speaks so wonderfully of problems in the world of today."
Brubeck was introduced to the poems by choir director Sue Ellen Page. "Sue Ellen wanted me to use `Hold Fast to Dreams,'" he says. "After I read that, I thought, why stop here?" Eventually Brubeck drew on 19 Hughes' poems. He volunteers the opening lines of one of the poems as a summary of their outlook. "I dream a world where man / No other man will scorn."
"The poetry is full of hope for people," says Brubeck. "I think it's great that city kids can be involved with the poetry of Hughes. It's not just important to them. It's important to everybody."
Brubeck's wife of 54 years, Iola, helped him select the texts. "My wife usually sets me straight," he says, adding, "So did Sue Ellen."
Brubeck stresses the benefits of training in art and music for both individuals and our society. "The kids trained in art and music are the creative ones," he says, and he looks to them to play a role in keeping our culture alive. He expresses his respect for teachers of children, pointing to his two brothers and his mother as models.
Cultural exchange is a bargain in achieving good international relations, says Brubeck, who recently met with hundreds of young people in Moscow. "I was so impressed with their wanting to make the world a better place," he says. Yet he failed in his efforts to lobby in Washington for funding for cultural exchange programs. "I got nothing," he says ruefully. "It costs more money for the wing tip of a fighter plane than it does for an entire cultural exchange for a year. Armaments don't insure peace. Cultural exchange does."
Brubeck has a history with church choirs. Born into a rancher's family in 1920, his mother was the choir director of a Presbyterian church. "I often had to go with her when she couldn't get a baby sitter," he told U.S. 1, in March, 1995, on the eve of the performance of his "Gates of Justice" at the Princeton University Chapel. Now as he approaches his 80th birthday, his career continues to flourish. By recent count he had performed before eight U.S. Presidents, princes, kings, heads of state, Pope John Paul II, and -- soon -- the girls and boys of Trenton and Princeton.
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