David Patrick Stearns, Inquirer Music Critic
Last updated: Monday, April 20, 2015, 10:29 PM
(PHILADELPHIA) Composer Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields, an oratorio for chorus and sextet commissioned by Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, has been awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Mendelssohn Club premiered the work on April 26, 2014 at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral along with the Bang on a Can All-Stars musical ensemble, which is based in New York City. The original four premiere performances combined more than 130 voices, along with music, movement and lighting to transport audiences deep down into the coal mines of northeastern Pennsylvania and into the hearts and souls of coal miners and their families. Composer Wolfe drew on oral histories, interviews, speeches, geographic descriptions, children’s rhymes, and coal advertisements to create an original work that conveys the deep cultural expressions associated with the struggles and joys of ordinary coal miners and one that offers an intimate look at a particular slice of American life.
“I want to express my sincere gratitude to the Pulitzer Committee for this very special honor,” says Wolfe. “And I also wish to thank my friend Alan Harler and everyone at Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia who played such a central role in commissioning this work and in bringing it to vivid life at its world premiere last April.” The composer dedicated Anthracite Fields to Harler.
Anthracite Fields was commissioned through New Music USA, which is made possible by generous support from the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Helen F. Whitaker Fund. Additional support was made possible through the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia Alan Harler New Ventures Fund; The Presser Foundation; The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage; the National Endowment for the Arts; The Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia, and the Aaron Copland Fund for Music. Research partners included First Person Arts, LiveConnections, World Café Live and the Anthracite Heritage Museum.
Since its first performance one year ago, Anthracite Fields has earned rave reviews. The New York Times wrote, “In Ms. Wolfe’s polished and stylistically assured cantata, the overall coherence of the musical material helped her expressions of outrage to burn cleanly and brightly.” The Philadelphia Inquirer praised the piece for creating “an alternate universe.” Anthracite Fields will be released on Cantaloupe Music in September, in a recording that features the Bang on a Can All-Stars and The Choir of Trinity Wall Street with Julian Wachner conducting. The next performance will be in March 2016 with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
“I am personally thrilled that the Pulitzer Committee has honored Julia’s groundbreaking oratorio,” declared Mendelssohn Club Artistic Director Alan Harler. “Anthracite Fields was one of the most exciting and innovative projects in the 141-year history of this chorus. It certainly matched such landmark productions of ours as David Lang’s battle hymns and Urban Echo: Circle Told, our work with composer Pauline Oliveros from several years ago.” Harler added, “As I approach the end of my 28th season with Mendelssohn Club, and my last as Artistic Director, I am especially delighted that this commission has been awarded one of the very highest honors in American culture.”
Executive Director Amanda Schkeeper observed that, “Today’s announcement truly validates our mission as an organization dedicated to providing adventurous programming and further expanding choral music as an art form. With works as original, complex and dramatic as Anthracite Fields last season, and the upcoming world premiere of Byron Au Young’s TURBINE next month at the Fairmount Water Works, Mendelssohn Club has shown that there is incredible music to be written and performed both on and off the concert stage, and that choral music as art is constantly being redefined.”
Speaking about her oratorio, Julia Wolfe has said, “My aim with Anthracite Fields was to honor the people who persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region during a time when the industry fueled the nation, and to reveal a bit about who we are as American workers. I wanted to honor the people who persevered and endured in a specific coal region during a time when the industry fueled the nation and also to reveal a bit about who we all are as workers in America.” Wolfe, a native of West Chester, Pennsylvania, adds that “Anthracite Fields represents a return to my small town Pennsylvania roots.”
Named after the technical term for the purest form of coal, (anthracite), Anthracite Fields was written after Wolfe did extensive research about the coal mining industry in an area very near where she grew up in Pennsylvania. For this work, she collaborated with First Person Arts, an arts organization based in Philadelphia that collected personal histories and recollections from miners and their children who grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania. First Person Arts connected the composer with Laurie McCants, a member of the Bloomsburg Theater Ensemble and the author of the play “Hard Coal, Life In the Region.” Digging deeper into McCants’ primary research for the play, Wolfe uncovered a complex society where workers fought bitter political battles while working the dark mines and mothers did what they could to bring some color to their soot-covered homes.
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