By Anthony Stoeckert
Sarah Kirkland Snider was writing a piece of music about her memories of North Carolina — the state her father is from — when her family received devastating news.
Ms. Snider had received a commission from the North Carolina Symphony and Princeton Symphony Orchestra to create her piece about the state she traveled to often as a child to visit her father’s family. The multi-media piece also was about childhood and how children see the world.
It also was about her father, and as she was writing, her dad, Arnold H. Snider III, was diagnosed with Rhabdomysarcoma, a rare and deadly cancer of the soft tissue, for which there is no cure or treatment.
”He had been very, very excited about this piece, about the commission and about the idea of me writing about North Carolina, his home state, this place that he loved so much,” Ms. Snider says. “Then he was diagnosed with this very rare cancer, and died just three months later.
”There was no way for me not to have a lot of that inform the music I was writing. I was going through a lot of grief and shock and sadness and anger, and all those things you feel about cancer or somebody dying on you unexpectedly. So the piece, as much as it’s about North Carolina and home, it’s also about letting go of someone that you love, and how it feels to miss a place in time that you can no longer go back to. My feelings about North Carolina are different now than they were when my dad was alive. Because when my dad was alive, it was a place where I could share those memories with him. It feels like a different place now.”
The finished piece is titled “Hiraeth,” and it will be performed by Princeton Symphony Orchestra, May 15 at Richardson Auditorium at Alexander Hall on the Princeton University campus. The title “Hiraeth” comes from a Welsh word, which doesn’t have a precise English translation but loosely means a homesickness that also has an element of longing for people who have passed on.
”It’s a step beyond homesickness,” Ms. Snider says. “It’s homesickness with this yearning for a place and time you just can’t go back to.”
Ms. Snider’s work will be part of PSO’s concert, titled Passion & Affection, which will be conducted by Rossen Milanov, and also will include performances of Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture from Romeo and Juliet; Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Wine, Women and Song,” Op. 333, and Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier Suite, Op. 59.”
The concert promises to be an extremely special one for Ms. Snider for many reasons. She lives in Princeton with her husband, Steven Mackey — the composer and professor at Princeton University’s Department of Music — and their two children. Ms. Snider grew up in Princeton, and her marriage to a Princeton Professor is sheer coincidence as the couple met in New York when she was living there.
Princeton is a special place for Ms. Snider, and not only because it’s her hometown.
”This town did so much for me musically, growing up,” she says. “I had incredible music teachers who really fostered a great love of music. So to come back here and play, not necessarily with them, but in the same town where I worked with them, is really amazing. I think the general spirit that Portia Sonnenfeld (who founded PSO in 1980) had when she started the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, you still feel that when you work with them. It’s just a wonderful love and passion for what they do that informs everything that the PSO does. Everybody still speaks of such great reverence for Portia. You feel that, those values that she had when she founded the orchestra are still very much there today. I really looked up to her a lot as a child, so it’s really wonderful to work with them now as an adult.
Ms. Snider says Ms. Sonnnfeld was an inspiration because she was a woman leading an orchestra.
”She was a legend in Princeton when I was a kid,” Ms. Snider says. “I didn’t know that a female conductor was a rare thing. She was just so celebrated because she was so good at what she did, and she fostered such a love of music in so many performers. Everyone saw her as this incredible force, just a larger-than-life musical presence. So growing up, that had a big impact on me.”
Another woman who was an influence on Ms. Snider was Gail Edwards, who taught music at Princeton High School.
”Growing up with these two female role models in classical music was really, I think, powerful for me,” Ms. Snider says. “There were no female composers that I knew of at the time. I didn’t even really know that the job of composer, male or female, existed. But certainly if I had, I think, subconsciously, that as a woman that wasn’t really an option.”
Indeed, when she started taking composition classes at Yale, she was the only woman in the program, (another woman would join the program later), and the walls were decorated with images of male composers.
”That sends a powerful message,” Ms. Snider says. “So to see women like Portia Sonnenefeld and Gail Edwards, at the helm on the podium, doing this masterful thing, was really inspiring to me.”
Ms. Snider has bucked other trends as well, incorporating elements from musical genres such as indie rock into her work. Among her best-known pieces are “Penelope” — a song cycle about the wife from Homer’s Odyseey, featuring lyrics by the playwright Ellen McLaughlin. That work will be performed by vocalist Carla Kihlstedt and members of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Devlin, May 17, at the Princeton High School Performing Arts Center.
The performance of “Hiraeth” promises to be an emotional moment for Ms. Snider. Her father was a regular at Princeton Symphony Orchestra concerts and her mother will be in the audience, as will other people she knows. As sad as it is to lose a parent, being able to pay tribute to her father is, of course, special.
”It feels like a way of connecting with him,” she says. “It’s very meaningful and special to me at a lot of levels.”
Princeton Symphony Orchestra will perform a concert titled Passion & Affection at Richardson Auditorium at Alexander Hall on the Princeton University campus, May 15, 4 p.m. (Pre-concert talk begins at 3 p.m.) Tickets cost $30-$75. Members of the orchestra also will perform Sarah Kirland Snider’s “Penelope,” with vocalist Carla Kihlstedt, May 17 at Princeton High School Performing Arts Center; princetonsymphony.org; 609-497-0020.
By Anthony Stoeckert