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Archive for Sunday, October 12, 2008

Man of words: Lawrence resident gaining reputation for work in choral field

Tony Silvestri, a local historian and music lyricist, recently has gained fame for writing the words for the music of Eric Whitacre, who is a rock star of sorts in choral music. Silvestri was on hand at Baker University earlier last week giving instructions to Baker's choral group, who will be singing his words.

Tony Silvestri, a local historian and music lyricist, recently has gained fame for writing the words for the music of Eric Whitacre, who is a rock star of sorts in choral music. Silvestri was on hand at Baker University earlier last week giving instructions to Baker's choral group, who will be singing his words.

October 12, 2008

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Tony Silvestri meets with a group of Baker University students on campus in Baldwin City.

Tony Silvestri meets with a group of Baker University students on campus in Baldwin City.

Even as he gains fame as a choral lyricist, Tony Silvestri doesn't feel comfortable in the world of music.

After all, his advanced degrees are in Roman and medieval history.

"I have trouble identifying myself as an artist because I don't have the training," Silvestri says. "I feel like a poser."

Still, Silvestri, who has lived in Lawrence two years, is a rising star in the choral field.

"He's amazing," says John Paul Johnson, former choir director at Kansas University and now director of the School of Music at Wichita State University. "If there ever was a Renaissance man, Tony is it."

Indeed, Silvestri, 43, lists these among his activities:

¢ Adjunct history professor at Washburn University.

¢ Artist who creates illuminated manuscripts in the style of medieval scribes.

¢ Visual art instructor at the Lawrence Arts Center.

¢ Singer in the choir at Corpus Christi Catholic Church.

And, most of all, he's known as the lyricist for Eric Whitacre, who is a rock star of sorts in choral composition.

"Tony's collaborations with Eric Whitacre are some of the best-known works in choral music, and they're played all over the world," Johnson says.

'Gifted poet'

One of the best-known collaborations between Silvestri and Whitacre, "Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine," will be featured at the Fall Choral Concert at Baker University on Tuesday.

"Leonardo," which talks about the creative process of Leonardo da Vinci, was the first joint effort between the two friends who met in graduate school.

It turned into an ongoing collaboration that has brought attention to the pair, though the focus clearly is on Whitacre. He is among 28 Americans through the years, including Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Foster, who have been identified as significant choral composers by the National Endowment for the Arts' American Genius Program.

But Whitacre is quick to deflect some of his attention to Silvestri.

Whitacre writes on his Web site: "Tony is a true poet, a master-teacher who draws on his vast intellect and experience to create deep, fragile and haunting works of pure self-expression."

Whitacre and Silvestri often travel, conducting master classes and workshops to talk about their compositions. They participated in one in Lawrence earlier this year.

"Tony is not only a gifted poet, he is also a choral musician and an educator," says Cathy Crispino, choral director at Lawrence High School. "He not only helps our students think about the poet's craft, he teaches them to play with the very sounds that make up those words. As a result, our high school singers become very invested in their own performance of excellent music."

Words with meaning

A native of Las Vegas, Silvestri received degrees from Loyola Marymount University and the University of Southern California.

He had worked in Los Angeles until 2006, when he came to Lawrence with his two children - Thomas, 10, and Emma, 6 - to be closer to family. His wife, Julie, died of ovarian cancer in 2005.

When he hears "Sleep," which may be he and Whitacre's most popular collaboration, he thinks of his wife.

"Sleep" came about this way: In 1999, Whitacre accepted a commission to set Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" to music. He completed the work and it was performed several times to excellent reviews.

When Whitacre tried to publish the piece, however, he found that he couldn't secure permission from the Frost estate.

"I was crushed," he writes in the text which accompanies the song. "I decided that I would ask (Tony) to set new words to the music I had already written. This was an enormous task because I was asking him to write a poem that had the exact structure of the Frost poem. ... Tony wrote an absolutely exquisite poem, finding a completely different (but equally beautiful) message in the music I had already written."

Silvestri says he spoke to Whitacre on the phone on a Friday night, and had the poem completed the following morning.

"It was a period when (son) Thomas had a lot of difficulty falling asleep, so I composed the poem about his struggle," Silvestri says.

But since then the work has taken on another meaning for Silvestri.

"I can't help but think of my late wife Julie when I hear that music now," Tony says. "She hung on for so long and was on so much medication at the end of her life. ... She just didn't want to die."

'Uber geek'

Silvestri's friends ribbed him about moving to Kansas from Los Angeles, but he says he's found a new home here.

"I love it here," he says. "It is all those things about Los Angeles that I like - it is liberal, trendy, sophisticated and creative - but without the falseness. People are genuinely nice here. They are generous, unassuming and it's completely different from the unhealthy feeling about all the pretentiousness of the West Coast."

He also loves the changing seasons, which he says helps inspire another of his creative endeavors - calligraphy and illuminated manuscripts, in a style he refers to as "neo-medieval."

His studio is filled with materials used in previous centuries: malachite, vermillion, cochineal insects, buckthorn berries, gold leaf and rabbit skin glue. And his studio is reminiscent of an earlier time with its shelves filled with rolls of parchment, goose feathers, books and the apothecary jars of the various substances lining one wall and religious icons and artwork on another.

Stepping into it one can imagine being transported back to that time - that is, until he explains that while painting he likes to catch up on episodes of "Battlestar Galactica," "Star Trek" and "Masterpiece Theatre" that have built up on his digital TV recorder.

Among his many roles as father, poet, lyricist, teacher, singer and painter, Tony is a self-proclaimed "uber geek and accomplished neurotic." It's just another element to the Renaissance man.

"Everything I've always thought about artists - about them being tormented and needing to express what is in their soul - well, Tony is not like that," says Johnson, the former KU professor. "He's a really great guy who is incredibly down to earth."

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