History and Poetry Meet in ‘A Standing Witness’

March 14, 2024
Concert performers stand in front of crowd on stage

“A Standing Witness” has been performed across the country, including at the Kennedy Center in Washington. (Photo by Bill Head, illustration by John DiJulio, University Communications)

Some of the most important events of the past six decades will play out in the University of Virginia’s Old Cabell Hall on March 21 and 23.

“A Standing Witness,” a 14-song performance piece featuring poems by Henry Hoyns Professor of English Rita Dove, touches upon on everything from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. to the 9/11 terror attacks.

“We usually just hear the facts, but this gives people a chance to contemplate the consequences,” Dove, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, said.

“A Standing Witness,” composed by award-winning composer Richard Danielpour, with music from Copland House, has been lauded by the trade publication Opera News and Vermont Public Radio. It features mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, whom the New York Times has called an “artist to watch.”

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Danielpour reached out to Dove specifically for the project after writer Toni Morrison suggested Danielpour work with her. Dove used to play cello and said she was drawn to the work because of her musical history. She started sending snippets of poems to Danielpour, and the two would go back and forth before landing on the final version of each poem in the collection. Every poem had to be a certain number of lines to fit the music Danielpour had written.

“I did make a promise to myself that I was not going to try to write poems that could only be appreciated with the music, but that they could also stand alone as poems,” Dove said.

The performance’s titular witness narrates major historical events, beginning with President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination and ending with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It reflects not only the ideals of the country, but also its unfinished business,” said Michael Boriskin, pianist and director of Copland House. The Copland House Ensemble will play with him.

Lead stands on stage surrounded by musicians

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham has been lauded by the New York Times. (Photo by Bill Head)

The piece, which debuted in 2021, has been performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., as well as at universities across the country, including the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University. Over the course of several performances, “A Standing Witness” has evolved.

“There's always some new challenge that our country is going through in the time since we last performed it,” Graham said. “So it’s always changing.”

Dove said “A Standing Witness” takes on a special meaning in Charlottesville.

“Richard and I agreed that Charlottesville had to be on the tour, and not just because I’m here, but because of the many layers of history that are centered here,” Dove said.

“A Standing Witness” is presented by UVA Arts with the support of The Joseph and Robert Cornell Foundation. The piece will be performed March 21 and 23, with a question-and-answer session with Dove, Danielpour and Boriskin after both performances. 

Tickets for “A Standing Witness” range from $10 to $40, with a 20% discount for UVA faculty and staff. Students can get free admission with Arts Dollars tickets. Tickets are available online, at the UVA Arts Box Office in the UVA Drama Building on Culbreth Road, or by phone at 434-924-3376. Some tickets may be available at Old Cabell Hall an hour before each performance.

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications