Donning groovy fashionable bell-bottoms, sporting long braids and a hair band, soprano Karol Bennett stepped away from the choir and took center stage at her middle school assembly. Her friend, opting for a short fringed miniskirt and plenty of glitter, joined her on guitar for an acoustic rendition of Bob Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind."
Her voice soared and the crowd went wild.
The lyrics took on a powerful meaning; something that can only happen in live performance, inciting the audience to respond in-kind.
The memory of that circa-1970 performance is as clear as daylight for Bennett. It was also the beginning of a career-long fascination with folk music, folk songs and music that carries strong messages. Bennett morphed into an artist that always finds the inner courage to express her sensitivities and vulnerabilities on stage.
She doesn't hide. Her goal is simply to connect honestly.
At Musiqa's season opener concert — 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts — Bennett, with microphone on hand, will perform those same Dylan's lyrics, both in their original form and as set by American composer John Corigliano.
"Blowing in the Wind" is a movement of the composer's Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan for amplified soprano — amplification mimics a popular concert setting — and chamber ensemble commissioned by Sylvia McNair, which premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2000. This performance marks its Houston debut as part of Musiqa's "Play a Song For Me" which also includes John Harbison's Songs America Loves To Sing and a reading of the The Passage by the author Justin Cronin.
Preparing for such a performance is no easy task for Bennett.
"I don't know when contemporary music, for some, became elitist," Bennett says. "It's a part of life. Everyone needs music.
The soprano is familiar with Corigliano's music. Having performed arias from his opera The Ghost of Versailles, she understands the technical, emotional and artistic demands of the composer's diverse musical styles. Bennett sees many similarities with Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which echoes the same exploratory themes, with a hint of escapism.
"Corigliano puts the text first," Bennett explains. "Through his music, he's not afraid to hurt you and to take you pretty far out vocally and musically. His use of color is virtuosic."
To those that know Dylan's songs — add "Masters of War," "All Along the Watch Tower" and "Forever Young" to the playlist— Corigliano's music may initially seem removed from Dylan's. It juxtaposes theatricality, depth and supports the otherwise strong words, yet brings simplistically accessible melodies.
This more inventive setting can be shocking. It mixes two genres and that's quite the contrast.
"Dylan's text is not your typical popular music verse," Bennett says. "His words stand alone and perhaps that's the reason Corigliano decided not to listen to the Dylan's music prior to embarking on this compositional journey."
Bennett followed a similar strategy even though a recording of Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan was available. Limiting her exposure to someone else's interpretation would allow her to make the piece her own without any preconceptions, something that her legendary teacher, Phyllis Curtin, reinforced during Bennett's studies at Yale University and Tanglewood Music Center.
"It's like a musical puzzle and I thrive on trying to decipher meaning in contemporary music," Bennett says. "There's always a rhyme or reason why Corigliano scores the way he does. Musical stress here, dissonance there, text painting elsewhere — I give myself over to that to find the meaning."
Bennett is clear about one thing. It's not about creating and inventing significance. It's a process that finds the essence of what’s already in the music.
"Phyllis Curtin taught me to get to the heart of the poetry by releasing the words, vowels and sounds that the composer has set, through my full bodied, fully engaged vocal instrument," she says. "Every singer has a unique, living voice to bring to the world of words and music and by 'allowing it,' liberating it, to touch the listeners and have a life of its own, we explore and discover the living music together."
That same ability to connect enables Bennett to deliver education programs effectively, even using the same strong source material — embedded with '60s antiwar, civil rights and moral messages — for outreach performances, education programs and school residencies. It's Bennett's way of awakening history and sharing her gift with others who may not readily have access to live music.
It activates learning.
"I don't know when contemporary music, for some, became elitist," Bennett says. "It's a part of life. Everyone needs music. It was around before writing, it's how we told stories. In many ways, children are more open to it than some adults and they also can tell when you are being honest when connecting them."
The experience in turn gives Bennett additional prowess when she returns to the concert stage.
“When I am singing on stage, I want the audience to feel what I am feeling,” she says. “And the only way to do that is by liberating any inhibitions so you can deliver the bigger picture; the singer is just one part of that cycle. The more I work with children, the more ways I find to let go so I can be genuine in performance.”
Musiqa opens its 2011-12 season with “Sing a Song For Me” Saturday night at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased online.