Poetry inspires musical piece

A youth orchestra and children’s choir will perform tonight.
Sunday, April 18, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:38 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 3, 2008

John Neihardt’s poetry about the Missouri River inspired the latest musical piece to be performed by the Missouri Symphony Society Youth Orchestra and Children’s Choir. They will premiere composer Mark Nicholas’ Missouri River Cantata for Youth Orchestra and Chorus tonight at 7 at the Missouri Theatre, 203 S. Ninth St.

Neihardt is best known for Black Elk Speaks, the 1932 biography of an American Indian holy man. He was also a poet, literary critic and English professor at MU. He died in 1973 in Columbia.

David White III, executive director of the Missouri Symphony Society, stumbled across Neihardt’s name while looking to create a new musical piece from the work of a local poet.

The society approached Nicholas in the fall to compose the piece. Rehearsals began in January.

“To provide these young people with an educational enhancement to their music development provides a unique opportunity to their musical futures,” White said, “and that’s a large part of the mission of the Missouri Symphony Society.”

White hopes to also use the musical piece as an educational tool for schools in the area.

Nicholas tailored the piece to the children in the 36-member chorus who are in the sixth through ninth grades.

“Because young voices are very fragile, it’s important not to demand them to strain their voices by over-singing,” said Melissa Straw, the choir’s director. In consideration, the full orchestra does not play while the children sing.

The orchestra’s director, Carrie Turner, helped choose Nicholas as the composer. She has worked with him to make sure the music is both appropriate and challenging for these young musicians. The 33 orchestra members are in the seventh through 12th grades.

Both directors said the young musicians show professionalism but also have fun with the piece. To simulate winter sounds, the orchestra members use special techniques to mimic cracking ice; string and wind instruments create a scary flurry effect, and a clarinet impersonates a goose call.

The 5-year-old youth orchestra and 2-year-old children’s choir were created to fulfill a need for advanced music students. The groups hold auditions in August and January for their 12-week semesters. The musicians must perform a prepared solo, sight read and exhibit technical skills.

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