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USM Resident Composer Wins National Grant for Baseball Opera Now Under Production

Daniel Sonenberg

PORTLAND, Maine – The University of Southern Maine’s resident composer, Daniel Sonenberg, has been named the recipient of a prestigious national grant that will be used to produce the world-premiere concert performance of his opera on the life of Josh Gibson, Negro League baseball great.

Sonenberg, a University of Southern Maine (USM) associate professor of music at USM’s School of Music, has been notified that he is the recipient of a $15,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant in opera. His opera, titled “The Summer King,” will be performed in concert on May 8, 2014, at the Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine, in collaboration with Portland Ovations.

Joan Shigekawa, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) acting chairman, has announced that Sonenberg and the University of Southern Maine are one of 895 nonprofit organizations nationwide to receive an NEA Art Works grant.

Shigekawa said: "The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support these exciting and diverse arts projects that will take place throughout the United States. Whether it is through a focus on education, engagement, or innovation, these projects all contribute to vibrant communities and memorable experiences for the public to engage with the arts."

"To work on a music project for this long, for many years without any guarantee that I would one day hear it, and then to receive the support of this award is gratifying beyond words,” said Sonenberg, who has taught at USM since 2004. “Without the support of USM, Portland Ovations, and now the NEA, this dream I've been cultivating for more than a decade would never be realized.

"The receipt of this grant goes a long way towards allowing us to present this performance on the scale we originally envisioned,” he continued. “I am grateful for the university's support - particularly through the complex and difficult process of applying to the NEA. I am also incredibly grateful to Director Aimeé Petrin and Portland Ovations for taking this leap of faith, and showing the vision and courage to take on an ambitious project such as this. It is wonderful to be able to present the opera without compromises and in a way in which the work can be truly and accurately represented.”

Alan Kaschub, USM School of Music director, commented: “I couldn't be happier about this grant. The NEA has rightly recognized the excellent work of Professor Sonenberg and the value of this opera. All of us in the School of Music, faculty and students, are proud of Dan and are looking forward to seeing this opera come to life in May.” 

“We are thrilled that Dan has been awarded this esteemed grant from the National Endowment for the Arts,” said Lynn Kuzma, dean of USM’s College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, which includes the School of Music. “Our School of Music already has an outstanding reputation as one of the top institutions in New England, and Dan’s celebrated accomplishments simply add to its distinction.”

An avid baseball fan, Sonenberg currently is orchestrating the two-act opera, which focuses on the tragic life of Josh Gibson and will be Portland Ovations’ season finale. The ballplayer earned the moniker, “the black Babe Ruth,” for his outstanding batting talent.

Gibson, who suffered from alcoholism and mental illness, was the second Negro League ballplayer to be inducted into the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame and the first never to have played in the white major leagues. He died just three months before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier by debuting with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Sonenberg has been working on “The Summer King” for the past 10 years, creating an original story about this outstanding yet underappreciated ballplayer. Taking a biblical perspective on baseball, the USM composer has compared Gibson, who helped to make Robinson’s career possible, to Moses, who saw but never reached the Promised Land. The opera, while focusing on Gibson’s life, also celebrates the world of the Negro Leagues and the loss of that world with the acceptance of black players into the majors.

Scenes and excerpts from “The Summer King” already have been performed at Fort Worth Opera, the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, the Manhattan School of Music and USM to excellent reviews.

In January 2014, the Opera America New Works Forum in New York City, in collaboration with the Brooklyn-based company American Opera Projects, will present a preview of “The Summer King” in a daylong series of events, including a libretto reading by actors, a piano-vocal performance of three scenes and then an orchestral performance of the same three scenes. Each of these events will be followed by discussion with the audience, which will consist of opera professionals from throughout the country.

Tom Parchman, USM clarinet professor and principal clarinetist of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, is contracting and organizing the May concert orchestra, which will consist primarily of members of USM’s music faculty. The chorus for the opera will be the Vox Nova Chamber Choir, based in Brunswick and directed by USM alumnus Shannon Chase. Additionally, the Boy Singers of Maine, directed by recent USM alumnus Jesse Wakeman, will be featured in one scene.

Steven Osgood, Metropolitan Opera assistant conductor who has been associated with the project since its earliest workshops in 2003, will conduct the opera. It also will be taped for broadcast on MPBN.

As USM resident composer, Sonenberg coordinates composition studies and has his own music performed regularly as a principal part of his scholarship. The associate professor also teaches composition and music theory at undergraduate and graduate levels.

Sonenberg is a co-founding member of the New York-based composers collective, South Oxford Six, which has given concerts in New York and Serbia and made its Maine debut in a concert at USM.

Sonenberg, whose first instrument is the drums, also is founder of the USM Composer’s Ensemble, a small chamber orchestra that writes, rehearses, and performs an evening’s worth of new music every semester. He established USM’s in-house mobile recording facility and also is a member and principal songwriter of a local rock band, “Lovers of Fiction,” whose recent EP The Bear received glowing reviews from the numerous local press outlets. The band has been nominated by the “Portland Phoenix” for the Best New Act of 2013.

In addition, Sonenberg also has published scholarly work on the music of Joni Mitchell and is completing a book on that topic for the University of Michigan Press.