The summer James Agee wrote about in his short poem, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” managed to capture the feeling of Knoxville nearly a century ago.
Now, composer Ellen Reid, alongside the UT Symphony Orchestra, is premiering a new musical work that aims to show how much Knoxville has changed.
Reid, a Knoxville native, first settled on the subject after she was approached by two New York-based producers to compose a piece for an as-yet-unspecified orchestra. After discussing ideas, Reid and librettist Royce Vavrek decided to create a sequel to Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” which was based on James Agee’s famous poem.
“Once they had settled on the Knoxville subject, Ellen contacted me and said ‘I have this really exciting project idea, but I want it to somehow incorporate into Knoxville. What do you think?’ and so that began our brainstorming about how we could bring the project in some capacity here,” Katy Wolfe Zahn, a lecturer and vocal coach at UT, said.
Wolfe pitched the idea of workshopping the project at the UT School of Music to the administration and began planning the academic performance.
By workshopping the piece here, Wolfe has been able to draw on the talents of UT’s school of music, as well as the theater department and the Knoxville community, to create a piece that mirrors Barber’s original format for the work.
“We’ve got it surrounded by other elements of music, as well as text, readings, poetry, actors and historians that are going to frame this new piece in a way that really celebrates Knoxville,” Wolfe said. “I’m excited for (audiences) to get to hear a piece that is written really in honor of our city, and to get to hear something new and vibrant from a young, brilliant composer.”
The performance will also include the original “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” by Samuel Barber, “The Tender Land” by Aaron Copland, a reading by Knoxville historian Bruce Wheeler and other pieces which represent the city.
“In Knoxville, we have such a strong arts community, and this is just a celebration of the arts,” Jeffrey Pappas, director of the UT School of Music, said. “It’s impossible to describe what people will take away from the performance … I hope that’s one thing we do on that stage on Friday night, is create art that people are moved by, feel good about and have a sense of pride about where they live.”
Pappas has been involved in this production from the beginning, connecting the various groups and people working not only on the music, but also on the entire performance.
“When you’re at the university, the number one thing you’ve got to think about is how your students are going to be impacted by what you do,” Pappas said. “How are they going to walk away and say, ‘I got this unique education at The University of Tennessee that I could have gotten nowhere else?’”
For Pappas and the UT School of Music, that has been giving his students the opportunity to work with a composer on a piece, which he believes has the potential to become the modern version of Barber’s classic.
The academic premiere of “Knoxville: Summer of 2015” will be held at the Tennessee Theatre on Friday, Oct. 30 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online at the Tennessee Theatre website, or at the Tennessee Theatre box office. UT students will receive discounted admission with student ID.