Already Painted on The Corner, Rita Dove’s Words Have Now Been Set to Music

May 29, 2018

Already, “Testimonial” – a poem by University of Virginia English professor and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove – has made an outsized impact at UVA.

One iconic line, “The world called, and I answered,” anchors a colorful mural in The Corner district, issuing a simple, powerful challenge – what Dove has called “the charge of the University” – to the students walking below.

That same line found its way into last weekend’s Final Exercises celebration as University Rector Frank M. “Rusty” Conner closed his remarks with this hope:

“I look forward with confidence that throughout your life, the hopeful challenge of our Rita Dove in her poem ‘Testimonial’ remains your compass: ‘The world called, and I answered,’” Conner said as he challenged the graduates to use their UVA education to pursue progress and reform in this country and around the world.

Now, the full poem – originally published in Dove’s book, “On the Bus with Rosa Parks” – has been memorialized in song.

The Oratorio Society of Virginia, which is affiliated with UVA’s McIntire Department of Music, performed the world premiere of “The World Called” in front of packed house during its 50th Anniversary Gala Concert at Old Cabell Hall on Friday.

The 90-member volunteer choral group, which gave its first performance in 1968, is Charlottesville’s longest-running community chorus and regularly hosts concerts at UVA and around the area.

Choral music director and associate professor Michael Slon, who leads the group, heard Dove’s poem at a ceremony marking the mural’s completion and kept thinking about how beautiful it would be set to music. He proposed the poem as the society considered commissioning a piece for the anniversary concert. 

“There is a fantastic spirit of youth in poem, but also a spirit of vocation and a charge to answer one’s vocation,” Slon said. “Rita told me that it represents a time of life where you see the future as possibility, not as obstacle.”

On Friday, audience members enjoyed the result of the collaboration: “The World Called,” composed by Adolphus Hailstork, a composer and scholar at Old Dominion University. The performance, which was preceded by a video conversation between Dove and Slon, elicited a standing ovation for the singers and Hailstork, who was in the audience.

The group also performed two excerpts from Handel’s “Messiah,” including one, “And the Glory of the Lord,” that was the first piece the society performed at its first concert at Albemarle High School on March 8, 1968. In addition, the society performed Mozart’s “Mass in C minor,” which Slon called “one of the all-time great pieces in the choral and orchestral repertoire.”

Friday’s performance was another unique honor in a long line of accolades for Dove, who served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993 to 1995 and has won awards including the Pulitzer Prize; the National Humanities Medal, presented to her by President Clinton in 1996; and the National Medal of the Arts, presented by President Obama in 2011. She was recently named the New York Times Magazine’s poetry editor, a position she will hold in addition to her professorship at UVA.

It was also a fitting celebration of the first 50 years of The Oratorio Society of Virginia. In addition to the concert, the society hosted a symposium for high-school aged composers, sponsored by the music department and featuring Slon, Hailstork and Kate Tamarkin, UVA professor emeritus of music and conductor laureate of the Charlottesville Symphony.

Slon said the evening beautifully captured the group’s achievements so far – and its hope for the future.

“It was a beautiful evening, with a wonderful spirit in the hall,” he said. “It is my hope that we will continue to serve the community for the next 50 years and beyond, offering a place for people to make music and presenting the highest possible level of musical performances, both of works we have inherited from a tremendous tradition and new and diverse works.”