Featuring the World Premiere of “Eavesdropping,” Honoring the Late Kansas City Poet Michelle Boisseau, and the Kansas City Premiere of “*dwb* (driving while black),” a Chamber Opera with Libretto by Soprano Roberta Gumbel.
“The Music of Susan Kander” celebrates the work of the Kansas City native, including the world premiere of “Eavesdropping,” based on poetry by Michelle Boisseau, and the Kansas City premiere of “*dwb* (driving while black),” featuring soprano Roberta Gumbel.
Kander’s work, heard all over the world, is popular with local ensembles too, including five commissions for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and work for Kansas City Chorale and Bach Aria Soloists.
The concert, on Jan. 25 at the 1900 Building, is part of a larger cycle of music by women conceived, produced and performed by Victoria Botero. Previous programs featured the music of 17th-century composer and performer Barbara Strozzi and the traditional songs from Sephardic, Arabic and Armenian cultures. “I knew I wanted to pivot from a program of ancient music to contemporary,” she said.
Botero originally intended an evening of all contemporary music by women, including Kander. Botero first met Kander when she (and her then one-year-old son) performed in the premiere of Kander’s “The Giver,” commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City in 2012.
The idea shifted to an all-Kander program when Botero saw a workshop performance for “*dwb*” at the University of Kansas. “Sitting in the theater I was really won over, and after five minutes I made up my mind to do a whole evening of her music,” Botero said.
Kander, though she majored in music at Harvard University, originally wanted to be a playwright. “I came out of college thinking that the playing field would be level, and I found out that it wasn’t.” She worked in the field for a dozen years or so, she said, before shifting to composition. “I could be angry all the time or I could go do something that I’m not angry about all the time.”
“Composition wasn’t a whole lot easier and it still isn’t . . . but somehow or other I was able to be busier and more appreciated in certain ways, so I stuck with music, but I brought all of my theatrical experience and savvy and ‘sachel’ (SAY-‘khol: Yiddish for knowledge) to writing classical music,” said Kander.
Author Steve Paul initiated the idea to create a work based on the poetry of Michelle Boisseau, a Kansas City poet and UMKC professor who died in November of 2017. (See Paul’s “Remembering Michelle Boisseau,” “KC Studio,” Jan/Feb 2018.)
“Not long after Michelle died,” wrote Paul in an email, “I had this wild-hair idea to memorialize her work somehow in music.
“I wondered whether I could find anyone interested in transforming some of her poetry into a different kind of music — meaning, I think Michelle’s work is already lyrical and musical in its way,” he wrote.
“I know some composers, but I got in touch with Victoria to see if she could hear what I was hearing from the vantage point of a potential performer.”
Botero approached Kander about the commission. “Michelle Boisseau’s work has an inherent theatricality to it and Susan’s background as a playwright prior to beginning her composition career connects the two in my mind,” said Botero. “Susan’s music is so text driven I knew she would be inspired by Boisseau’s unique voice and turn it into music.”
“I was completely blown away by it. It’s fantastic, ferocious, vivid, passionate stuff. The language is very unique to her and extraordinarily muscular,” said Kander. She selected two poems, with lines from a third, to create the song cycle, “Eavesdropping.”
Botero initially imagined the work for voice and percussion, and Kander added violin to the mix, but the words — some sung,some spoken — were paramount. “I always want the text to be comprehensible to the audience, but in this case I wanted it even further out front. It is all about text,” she said, “to make sure that the words and the sense of it and the poetry of it are the first, second and third things that the audience takes in.”
The first half also includes two chamber works: “The Garden’s Time Piece,” for soprano and violin, and “Duo in Memory of the Littlest Refugees Who Never Reach a Place of Safety,” for violin and cello. Jacob Ashworth, Kander’s son, will perform on violin.
“*dwb* (driving while black)”
The concert finishes with the Kansas City premiere of “*dwb* (driving while black),” a chamber opera tracing the arc — and inherent worries — of the mother-son relationship, from infant carrier to driver’s seat, in the current climate of racial profiling and police brutality.
It’s a one-act for soprano and duo, performed by soprano Roberta Gumbel, cellist Hannah Collins and percussionist Michael Compitello (who collaborate as the duo New Morse Code), all professors at the University of Kansas.
“The story of how “*dwb*” came to be is really one of friendship,” said Botero.
Kander and Roberta Gumbel have been friends since 1996, when Gumbel originated the role of Harriet Tubman in Kander’s “She Never Lost a Passenger,” commissioned by the Lyric.
“We first started talking about something specifically for her to sing. I didn’t know what it was going to be, but I had written a bunch for her before. She is just my very favorite,” said Kander.
“We were sitting around her table in New York,” remembered Gumbel, “chatting about the subject matter of this piece, me worrying about my kid driving in today’s climate.” After thinking it over, Kander decided this was the subject for the piece, but knew someone else had to write the words. She turned to Gumbel.
This was Gumbel’s first libretto. She wrote about her thoughts and experiences, the experiences of her brother and nephews, and the news stories of the day, collaborating with Kander to structure it.
“She was very true to what I put on the paper. She had the benefit of being a good friend and knowing my kid. She really likes my kid, so I think she was able to picture the experiences I was describing. And she’s the mother of two sons, so she gets it,” said Gumbel.
Gumbel’s son, who grew up in Brookside and attended Pembroke High School, lived in a bubble, she said. “He hasn’t had his story yet, but it’s going to happen. Whether it’s behind the wheel of a car, or in some other environment, there is going to be someone who decides he is different. They are going to remind him of it when he least expects it,” she said.
When they started working on the project, Gumbel’s son had just started driving. Now, he’s a freshman at the University of Kansas. “The driving is the focus of this piece, but the focus I would like people to see is what a parent goes through, wanting their child to have it all and be safe,” she said.
There are moments of humor and warmth, too, assured Gumbel. “It’s not a piece where everything is dark, dark, dark.”
“I am just so grateful she is trusting me to produce the Kansas City premiere, especially because Roberta’s autobiographical text is full of local references,” said Botero. The work had its world premiere just two months prior at the Lawrence Arts Center, directed by KCRep’s Chip Miller.
Additionally, Gumbel and New Morse Code will perform “*dwb*” Jan. 27 at St. James United Methodist Church. “We are going to do a performance that is more available to the community that it is referencing,” said Gumbel.
There will be a panel discussion in conjunction with the St. James performance. “It’s really meant to be a community event.”
Taking on complex subjects and injecting them with empathy is a tenet of Kander’s career, along with trust, friendship and perseverance.
“The Music of Susan Kander” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 25 at the 1900 Building, 1900 Shawnee Mission Pkwy. For more information and tickets, 1900bldg.com/events. “*dwb*” will also be performed at 2 p.m. Jan. 27 at St. James United Methodist Church, 5540 Wayne Ave. For more information, sjumckc.org.