Cather’s ‘My Ántonia’ to come alive in song

Cather’s ‘My Ántonia’ to come alive in song

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Illustration by Katie Black | University Communication
“Prairie Songs: Remembering Ántonia” will premiere at 7:30 p.m. March 28 in the Johnny Carson Theater.

For years, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has conducted internationally recognized scholarly work on famed Nebraska author Willa Cather through The Cather Project.

Now, taking direction from Cather's love of music, the Cather Project has commissioned a song cycle inspired by the text of “My Ántonia,” Nebraska's prairie and the author's letters.

Prairie Songs: Remembering Ántonia” will premiere at 7:30 p.m. March 28 in the Johnny Carson Theater, on the west side of the Lied Center for Performing Arts.

A song cycle is a group of individually complete songs designed to be performed in a sequence as a unit. "Prairie Songs" was composed by Washington composer Brent Edstrom and features the voice of Fremont native and Nebraska alumnus Scott Miller, associate professor of music at Whitworth University in Spokane. Tana Bachman-Bland will be on violin. The event is free and open to the public.

A little over a year ago, Cather Project director Guy Reynolds and Beth Burke, a project manager, wanted to expand the Cather Project beyond scholarly works. Thanks to an endowment established by the author's nephew, Charles Cather, the Cather Project worked with Edstrom to commission a new musical work.

“We’re looking at more creative adaptations of her work,” Reynolds said. “We’re trying to keep the legacy of Cather alive and vibrant by translating her work into different forms, using different media, different forms of artistic performance and expression.”

Edstrom described the songs as a series of vignettes, characters and scenes from “My Ántonia.” The song cycle is written with a “distinctive American voice that is informed by the work of Stephen Foster, Aaron Copeland, Charles Ives and others.” Unlike other song cycles, this piece utilizes a violin in addition to the voice and piano.

My Ántonia" was published in 1918 and is considered Cather's first masterpiece, a seminal work that solidified her reputation as a great American novelist. It is the story of two pioneer children, Jim and Ántonia, coming of age on the Nebraska prairie, their growing friendship that turns into unrequited love and the hardships their families face in the American West. It has remained in print since its original publication.

Edstrom traveled to Nebraska in 2016 to draw influences from Cather’s life, visiting Red Cloud and spending time in the archives at Nebraska, reading her letters and writings. One song in the cycle is based on a letter she wrote to her brother describing the characteristics of her favorite songs.

Reynolds and Burke said they hope the song cycle will be performed in Red Cloud next year, the 100th anniversary of the book's release.

Two additional performances are set for 7:30 p.m. March 30 in the Kimmel Theater at Midland University in Fremont; and 7:30 p.m. April 1 at Kaneko, 1111 Jones St. in Omaha. A 6 p.m. reception and 6:45 p.m. artist presentation will be before each of the performances, which are free and open to the public.