Music News & Reviews

Lexington Chamber Chorale to combine music and poetry with Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon

Author George Ella Lyon, shown in one of her writing rooms in her home in Lexington in 2012, will recite some of her poems in concert with the Lexington Chamber Chorale on Saturday.
Author George Ella Lyon, shown in one of her writing rooms in her home in Lexington in 2012, will recite some of her poems in concert with the Lexington Chamber Chorale on Saturday. Herald-Leader

Lexington Chamber Chorale conductor Gary Anderson wanted to present a program about Kentucky's heritage to celebrate the beginning of the group's 25th season.

That program will indeed be a departure: It will include music made popular by Jean Ritchie, Stephen Collins Foster, John Jacob Niles and the Kentucky mountains as well as the poetry of George Ella Lyon, Kentucky's poet laureate.

Anderson says Lyon "jumped at the opportunity" to work on a musical-spoken word program.

"She's amplifying what we're doing with her poetry, and we're amplifying what we're doing with the singing," Anderson says. "This will bring us together in a very comfortable way, to entertain and to have a great time with this poetry and this music."

Anderson, who taught at Transylvania University, says that Kentucky students can sometimes get through college with little knowledge of the state's rich cultural heritage. One of Anderson's favorite parts of the program is the Civil War songs sequence, which includes the songs Shiloh and Lorena.

"The musical settings are so powerful, they resonate with me," Anderson says.

George Ella Lyon grew up in Kentucky coal-mining country. Her poetry collection Mountain won the Lamont Hall Award from Andrew Mountain Press. Her poetry collection Catalpa was named Appalachian Book of the Year in 1993.

"Kentucky is such a rich ground for poetry and music, and we have such a rare heritage," Lyon says. "I wanted something specifically about the land, the relationship to nature, so the first one I'm going to read is called Tree Valentine, which is about being around trees and the tremendous gift they give us."

Part of the poem evokes a forest that is both soothing and yet full of movement and change:

Such deep peace

as you find

among oak and birch

hickory and fir

is not resting

but the steady pulse

of running a channel of life

between dirt and stars ...

During the segment dedicated to Jean Ritchie, the folk-music singer, songwriter, and mountain dulcimer player born in Perry County, Lyon will read a poem called Song.

"It has a quality of an old ballad, and it draws on that part of my own background," she says.

Ritchie died in June, at 92.

Lyon says of Ritchie: "I don't think people are aware of the power and breadth of her work and how fortunate we are for all the music she gave us, both the songs that she wrote — many of which were speaking out against the treatment of miners and the land that they mine — but also the music that she collected and sang and the ways in which she connected our tradition with its English and Scottish roots."

For the Civil War section of the program, Lyon wanted to read a peace poem.

"I'm reading a poem called Prayer, which I wrote for the interfaith vigil for peace" that happened after 9/11 in New York City, Lyon says. "It is a recasting of the Lord's Prayer."

For the section dedicated to John Jacobs Niles, the late Kentucky composer, singer, and collector of traditional ballads, Lyon selected the poem With a Song in His Heart, "which is about all the music in the house where I grew up, but particularly about my father and all the music he sang to me, like Barbara Allen."

For those unfamiliar with Kentucky folk and mountain music, Lyon says the concert will provide "the beauty, the variety and depth of Kentucky music."