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Artists respond: HGOco recital opens doors to hidden beauty, wisdom & joy of Houston's diversity

Houston Grand Opera, HGO Home and Place recital, August 2012
Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo's "Por Simple Ser Mujer" (Just for Being a Woman)  captured how women at Baker-Ripley imagined themselves inside and out. Photo by Anthony Rathbun
Houston Grand Opera, HGO Home and Place recital, August 2012
Powerhouse musical force LiveSoul blues troupe closed the musicale with five fervent high-decibel songs inspired by Kashmere Gardens Elementary School and community. Photo by Anthony Rathbun
Houston Grand Opera, HGO Home and Place recital, August 2012
The chatter in the post-concert reception indicated that those present were touched by the sharing of personal stories and were curious to track down what else is hidden in the document archives of Home and Place. Photo by Anthony Rathbun
Houston Grand Opera, HGO Home and Place recital, August 2012
Sandra Bernhard hopes that these creative conversations can be permanently etched in the spirit of the community. Photo by Anthony Rathbun

What if it were possible to grasp the core ethos of an individual whose life's trials have bestowed a wisdom that's unattained by most? Like a woman — a mother of three, a grandmother of 15, a great grandmother of 12, a great-great grandmother of three — whose words decipher humanity's impulse to connect, to empathize, to seek fellowship. 

Then combine that with the innocence of a young boy who's discovering his roots through writing, singing, dancing, even gardening.

What if by doing so repeatedly one could unravel the essence of a whole neighborhood? Perhaps a community whose richness is blind to the eye but harmonious to the ear, where stories of plight, joy, endurance and beauty open doors to understanding the difference between external silence and inner peace.

What if one didn't stop at one community? 

And what if music were the means to collect, synthesize and share this bricolage of beliefs?

When Sandra Bernhard, director of Houston Grand Opera's community engagement department, HGOco, was poring over a wealth of poems, art, photos, collages, videos, sound recordings and short stories that were created through long-term residencies as part of the Song of Houston: Home and Place program — a collaboration with Neighborhoods Centers, Houston Independent School District and Writers in the Schools at Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center in Sharpstown, Garden Villas Elementary School near Hobby, Harbach-Ripley Neighborhood Center in southeast Houston, Neff Elementary School in the Third Ward, Kashmere Gardens Elementary in the Fifth Ward and Ripley House in the East End —  she couldn't stay silent.

 Bernhard hopes that these creative conversations can spur legacies to be permanently etched in the spirit of the community, in a way redefining people's understanding of the world through art.

She had find a way to respond — through song.

Beginning with Home and Place

It all came together last week at an intimate recital at the Gockley Rehearsal Room inside Wortham Theater Center with "Houston Artists Respond 2012." The program presented a slice of the oeuvres crafted by local composers and writers in response to work amassed in the Home and Place year-long initiative during which teaching artists, writers, dancers, musicians, storytellers and actors spurred children, adults and seniors to dialogue through art. 

These same compositions were performed at each of the center's Open Door Day, a big celebration that culminated Home and Place residencies.

"It took a village, "Bernhard told the lively audience. She hopes that these creative conversations can spur legacies to be permanently etched in the spirit of the community, in a way redefining people's understanding of the world through art. 

A call for submissions in February piqued the curiosity of jazz pianist Paul English, Da Camera young artist Mark Buller, Prairie View professor John Cornelius II, soprano Shelley Auer, Malcolm Rector, Hilary Purrington, Chip Schneider, Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo, poet Katherine McDaniel, Andrew Schneider and writer Mignette Dorsey, among others.

In an online archive they found colorful testimonials that inspired their compositions. Like how one woman who grew up poor  — but happy — made her own shoes out of soft tree leaves she found near a big waterfall in her family's small ranch in Mexico. In a video, a man quips about love, writing that love is "the understanding between two fools, love is what is left after the argument, love is the reaction after the action."

 HGOco is working on making the resources available online, so that anyone can respond to the beauty of experiences deeply-rooted within this city.

Another woman tells her tale of overcoming cancer. "I'm old, I'm wrinkled, now I have cancer . . . but you will not win," she says in a video. "Time will not defeat me, and I don't have cancer, I will be healed." 

At Garden Villas Elementary School students fashioned mobiles made from retired musical instruments. At Kashmere Gardens Elementary boys and girls built a garden and used that experience to create artwork to beautify their school. 

Responding with music and poetry

Somewhere between tears and joy, Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo's "Por Simple Ser Mujer" (Just for Being a Woman) for soprano and guitar flourished from recitative to nostalgic rhythmic folk tune, the type one would hear in a small salon. Her material captured how women at Baker-Ripley imagined themselves inside and out.

Writers in the Schools facilitator Mignette Dorsey shared lessons she learned while working with seniors at Harbach-Ripley. In excerpts from her writings "Taste and See, That Community is Good," Dorsey clues in how they wanted to air out injustices from the past and how their memories were as clear as if they happened yesterday. Men and women in their 70s and 80s weren't silent; they had something to say, to contribute; they wanted to offer advice. Their personal connections were important; work came second.

Hilary Purrington's setting of text by Cleotha Turner, a senior at Harbach-Ripley, played with the simplicity of two-note intervals traveling from voice to cello, supported by an ostinato on the piano. "The Life I Have Lived" emerged through a minimalist framework that savored dissonance and consonance equally. One major mode resolution proffered light, hope and repose, where the rest of the composition searched for a respite from a constant churning of smoky textures.

Powerhouse musical force, 18-member LiveSoul blues troupe closed the musicale with five fervent high-decibel songs inspired by Kashmere Gardens Elementary School and community. No one stayed motionless, or quiet for that matter. Cheering on wicked vocal riffs and nonstop grooves, the audience was invited to sing along in the final number, which brought on smiles, claps and hollers as harmonic progressions rose chromatically time and time again.

The chatter in the post-concert reception proved that those present were touched by the sharing of personal stories, and were curious to track down what else is hidden in the document archives of Home and Place.

HGOco is working on making the resources available online, so that anyone can respond to the beauty of experiences deeply-rooted within this city.

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