President’s gift of music is tribute to Sweet Briar faculty — and to the liberal arts

Marie Curie portrait
Marie Curie circa 1898 (mlahanas.de/Physics/Bios/MarieCurie.html via Wikimedia Commons)

Sweet Briar’s president, Phillip C. Stone, is sponsoring a special performance of “Marie Curie: A Staged Song Cycle” at 4 p.m. Saturday, April 1, in the College’s Memorial Chapel.

According to Larry Taylor, the show’s composer and co-creator, it is not a traditional musical recital. Rather, it is presented in a “carefully conceived theatrical style” that “celebrates both one scientist’s remarkable personal life and the universal human drive for theoretical and practical knowledge of our world.”

Soprano Dorothy Maddison, a professor teaching voice at James Madison University, performs the song cycle. Taylor will accompany her on piano. Poet Tom Noe wrote the libretto.

Although open to the public, “Marie Curie” is President Stone’s gift to the faculty he has served with for the past two years.

“It is a tribute to the Sweet Briar faculty for their devotion to the College and its students, and for their friendship during my time here,” says Stone, whose last day at the College is May 15.

He will preside at commencement on May 13 before handing the reins to the incoming president, Meredith Woo. It is not his first retirement as a college president; he retired in 2010 after 16 years at his own alma mater, Bridgewater College — where Taylor is chair of the music department and an associate professor.

It was there he first heard “Marie Curie: A Staged Song Cycle,” at its premiere performance. Stone became an admirer of both the work and Taylor, who also taught his mathematician-musician granddaughter. The piece struck him as a great testimony to the liberal arts, he recalls.

According to Taylor and Noe’s program notes on “Marie Curie,” they “began with a question: Can music serve science in the same way that it serves its perennial themes of religion, romantic love and profound human experience?”

From there they explored other questions: “Is it possible for music to break from traditional forms to celebrate mathematics? To make biology beautiful? To evoke the delights of quantum mechanics? Can music soothe the savage equation?”

The answer, Taylor and Noe seem to be saying, is yes.

“Here the music bridges the realm of science, letting each speak its own language with full voice and with mighty contrasts,” they write, noting also that the lyrics range from poetic forms to a “dry listing of the titles of scientific papers” and the music from Romantic harmony to 20th-century jazz elements.

Encompassing this breadth of disciplines — personified in the life of Madame Curie — is what draws Stone to the work.

“I wanted to bring the production to Sweet Briar, where the sciences and arts live so comfortably together,” Stone says. “I’d also been looking for a way to visibly express my respect and gratitude for the faculty and this was the ideal way to do so.”

Taylor, Maddison and Noe also have collaborated on an opera, “Eros and Psyche,” with Maddison in the role of Psyche.

Maddison studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London in addition to earning her Bachelor of Music at St. Olaf College and her M.M. and D.M.A. in vocal performance at Arizona State University. Prior to arriving at JMU in 2002, she enjoyed a 20-year career in Europe, including as a full-time soloist with the Stadttheater Döbeln in Germany.

Taylor teaches piano and organ at Bridgewater. He holds a B.M. from Seton Hill University, master’s degrees in piano and organ respectively from the University of Notre Dame and Emory University, and a Doctor of Musical Arts in organ from the University of Cincinnati.

A reception will be held at Sweet Briar House after the recital. For more information, please contact the president’s office at president@sbc.edu or (434) 381-6210.

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