FACS spins Jane Austen novel ‘Emma’

A trio of faculty members in the music department offered an ensemble of classical repertoire from the nineteenth century representing the time period of Jane Austen’s fictional character and novel of the same name, “Emma,” on Sept. 26 at 7:30 p.m. in the Ruth Lilly Performance Hall for the Faculty Artist Concert Series. Assistant Professor of Music and mezzo-soprano Mitzi Westra, Director and Professor of Music and pianist Rebecca Sorley and Assistant Professor of Music and violinist Austin Hartman performed together in a staged setting to replicate a parlor mentioned in the novel “Emma.”

Mitzi Westra performs “Que faro senza Euridice” with Rebecca Sorley accompanying her for the FACS performance, replicating the time period of “Emma.” Photo by Morgan Ellis
Mitzi Westra performs “Que faro senza Euridice” with Rebecca Sorley accompanying her for the FACS performance, replicating the time period of “Emma.” Photo by Morgan Ellis

According to Westra, composers and their music were selected by Westra, Sorley and Hartman after finding that English composers were not around to produce music for that specific time period. Music from composers such as Christoph Willibald Gluck, Ignatz Pleyel, Johann Baptist Cramer and John Field were performed.

“When we sat down and started thinking about ‘Who are the English composers of this time?’ we drew a blank because there wasn’t anybody,” Westra said. “We did Pleyel, who is French and German, we did Gluck, who is French and Austrian….  Everybody from Mainland because there really wasn’t anything [else].”

During the performance, a total of 12 pieces of music formed the set list; some pieces were duets and some were solos. Westra sang two pieces composed by Gluck and a set of five Scottish Folk Songs arranged by Pleyel.

“This was supposed to be amateur music-makers, and the way I sing Italian arias is not amateur.  If I were to sing like an amateur, it probably wouldn’t be what they [the audience] were looking for for the evening,” Westra said. “Character-wise,
I’m thinking the whole time that I’m up there . . . Emma, herself, she’s constantly thinking about interrelationships; she was a matchmaker to the nth degree. There was a piano player who knew that she was better than she [Emma], and she [Emma] had to admit it, and it really hurt. She didn’t like to admit that somebody was better than she was, but she had to admit because it was really obvious. There were all kinds of personal interconnections that were going on all around all of the time. After reading the book, her brain was always going that way, thinking about the stratified society [of that time period].”

According to Westra, the music department has put on Faculty Artist Concert Series events in the past that had a timely theme, such as a German Liederabend.  A Liederabend is an evening of German art songs dating back to the 1800s, according to the New England Conservatory.

“We’ve had a German Liederabend a long time ago, where we kind of did the same thing. Liederabend were very much the same thing; they were meant to be done in small salons, and we had a little setup,” Westra said. “We also had some more adjuncts involved that year, so we had a few more people on stage, rather than just three. There were about four or five of us that got up and switched off. Every once in a while, the piano department will do something from specific [time] periods. [These events are] not terribly often, because if you get all music from one period, it starts to sound kind of the same.”

At UIndy, an interdisciplinary course, Communiversity,  is offered and meant “to bring together current students, alumni, faculty, staff and community members to model and promote life-long learning,” according to the  UIndy course catalog.
Communiversity asked the UIndy music department to host an event for their Lecture/Performances schedule.

“I’m in the Communiversity class on ‘Emma,’ but all of these lectures are not required,” said sophomore professional writing major Kara Wagoner. “We [the class members] have to attend at least one because we have a paper due over at least one. For me, I went to the music performance because I like music performances. I also hadn’t really connected with everyone in the class yet, so I wanted to put faces to names since it’s online. To do that through a performance,  I thought, would be a good idea,” Wagoner said.

Wagoner said she was involved with music and instruments for years and considered music as a career opportunity when she was in high school. This performance, and Hartman’s violin performance, was special to her.

“I was in band, and I’ve played flute since the fourth grade.  And I’ve played in a couple [of] pit orchestras in high school. I’ve never played strings, but they’ve always been my favorite,” Wagoner said.

Wagoner believes that lecture performance put together with music presents a better visual to students versus an adaptation or lecture.

“I’ve read a lot of Jane Austen, but outside of Jane Austen, other than requirements for class, I don’t do a lot of reading for that time period. Even reading ‘Emma’ from this semester and reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’  and seeing the movie[s], it’s pretty obvious that music was a big part of their lives. Even by just having people over, you were expected to entertain and impress through music. Seeing that [the scenes from ‘Emma’] brought to life by having that chair and floor lamp, kind of how they would in a sitting room, helped me picture what was going on in those scenes [of the book],” Wagoner said. “I think they bring visuals that are a little more
genuine than a movie adaptation or a book .”

According to Wagoner, a lot of people from the community came to view the performance, and she believes that a lot of people from older generations enjoy viewing these kinds of performances. Wagoner stresses that events by the music department are often over looked by students on campus and hopes that students will attend more of these performances in the future, not just for Lecture/Performance credit but to sit and listen to art.

The next Lecture/Performance by Communiversity on campus will be “Donna Adams: Pride and Portraiture: Painting in Jane Austen’s World” on Oct. 24 in the Health Pavilion theatre. There will be a reception at 6 p.m., and a lecture to follow from 7 to 8 p.m.