Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘Anthracite Fields’ to be performed in Trenton

Rider University’s Westminster College of the Arts will be performing the 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anthracite Fields” at the Roebling Wireworks Factory Building in Trenton April 21 and 22, as part of the college’s Transforming Space project.

The site was once the factory where John A. Roebling & Sons manufactured wire rope for the Brooklyn Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, Otis elevators and cable cars.

At 675 S. Clinton Ave., the red brick building, with its soaring space, has been home to Art All Night, the 24-hour extravaganza of music, film, lectures, art exhibits and performances for the past 10 years. The Wireworks is an ideal venue for “Anthracite Fields,” which addresses issues of labor and industry in Northeastern Pennsylvania around the turn of the 20th century. It was anthracite coal that fueled the furnaces that allowed Roebling to make the steel that built America.

An oratorio for choir and chamber ensemble by American composer Julia Wolfe, “Anthracite Fields” was commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and premiered in Philadelphia in 2014. The text is culled from oral histories and interviews, local rhymes, a coal advertisement, geological descriptions, a mining accident and contemporary everyday activities that make use of coal.

The composition has been praised as “an unforgettably haunting, harrowing evocation of the plight of Pennsylvania’s coal miners, incorporating many musical styles and effectively shadowy visuals” by Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed.

Anthracite is a hard, compact variety of coal that has a submetallic luster. Composer Wolfe grew up outside of Philadelphia, just south of an anthracite mining operation that fascinated her when she discovered it.

“These people persevered and worked hard and made a life,” Wolfe said in a video produced by the Mendelssohn Club. “What they did fueled the nation.”

She wondered, who are these people whose health and safety are compromised by our dependence on coal for the conveniences of modern life. “Anthracite Fields” uses threads from their narratives as movements.

Wolfe received a MacArthur “genius award” in 2016. Her music combines influences from folk, classical and rock genres and is grounded in historical and legendary narrative. The production will be in collaboration with Bang on a Can All Stars, a six-member amplified ensemble co-founded by Wolfe and recognized worldwide for live performances and recordings of innovative music that crosses boundaries between classical, jazz, rock, world and experimental music. The performance involves a moving choir, choreography and projections of still and moving images as characters are searching for identity in a post-industrial city. Through movement, the audience becomes part of the performance.

“‘Anthracite Fields’ breaks down the fourth wall, bringing the choir to the audience through movement and perspective,” said Westminster’s director of choral activities Joe Miller. “Instead of standing, they will be integrated through movement. It is one of the college’s initiatives, to change the perception of the audience by being surrounded by music. Students will be reacting to the space with their voices and movement, and at times it will be like living sculpture.”

Westminster’s Transforming Space project aims to “explore how the arts can transform a space or a location not generally used for a performance or arts-related event,” said Westminster College of the Arts Dean Matthew Shaftel.

Venues selected are non-traditional post-abandoned spaces that have restrooms and are safe, said Shaftel.

“Anthracite Fields” in Roebling Wireworks is the first of three such performances planned. The other two projects are a performance of Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes at the Trenton War Memorial Ballroom, in collaboration with American Repertory Ballet Company, in the fall of 2017; and, in spring 2018, a new piece to be commissioned about immigrants who transformed America, in collaboration with Juilliard School of Music, at Liberty State Park Railroad Terminus.

“An experience where music, poetry and the arts is put inside a space outside a typical performance hall or church takes on completely new meaning,” said Miller. “It’s unexpected, and then, all of a sudden, it’s there, that change of perspective, and it hits you. When students have experiences outside of the norm like performing in the Wireworks, they will take these ideas with them as they become performers and conductors and teachers.”

A week ago, Rider University announced its plan to sell Westminster Choir College — the university faces declining enrollment and a $13 million budget deficit, and the choir college does not fit the strategic goals of the university. The optimal goal, according to Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo, would be to keep the college on its 23-acre bucolic Princeton campus. With productions like “Anthracite Fields” in innovative spaces, a potential buyer will get a taste for the college’s potential.

“Anthracite Fields,” Roebling Wireworks, 675 S. Clinton Ave., Trenton, April 21 and 22, 8 p.m., $15 to $20, (609) 921-2663 or rider.edu/arts. Pre-concert talks at 7:15 with composer Julia Wolfe, conductor Joe Miller and Roebling Wireworks historian Clifford Zink.

A two-day exhibit, “Transformations — Post Industrial Trenton,” will be on view concurrently at Artworks Trenton, with artwork depicting how Trenton and other post-industrial places can find reanimated beauty, dignity andcommunity in these spaces today. 

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The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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