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MUSIC : 'Portrait' Does Poetic Justice

May 02, 1991|CHRIS PASLES | Chris Pasles covers music and dance for The Times Orange County Edition.

Quiz time. Who is America's first published poet? Walt Whitman? Edgar Allan Poe? William Cullen Bryant?

Wrong.

"Anne Bradstreet was America's first poet," composer Dorothy Lamb Crawford said from her home in Santa Monica. "People do not realize that a woman was our first poet."

To redress that ignorance, Crawford wrote a short cantata called "Portrait of Anne Bradstreet." It will receive its West Coast premiere on Sunday afternoon by the Harmonia Baroque Players at the Christ Church by the Sea United Methodist Church in Newport Beach.

For the piece, Crawford drew on Bradstreet's poems and meditations, which the author described as "sitting loose from God."

"She wrote her poetry in private," Crawford said. "Her brother took some poems back to England, where they were published (in 1650). I found some of her academic poetry rather boring, but she also had struggles with herself.

"She didn't feel happy with Puritan attitudes, especially the religious fanaticism. She was rather broad-minded and she had struggles with that."

Bradstreet was born in Northampton, England, in 1612, and died in Massachusetts in 1672. She was 16 when she married Simon Bradstreet. Two years later, she and her husband, along with her father, Thomas Dudley, and the rest of his family, sailed to America to be among the first settlers at the colony at Massachusetts Bay.

Her father served four terms as governor of the colony. Her husband was governor for 10 years.

"She missed very much the pleasures of England--the library and garden at the home where she had lived," Crawford said. "She lost all that when she came to this wild place where people were dying because they were starving and ill. They had to work very hard."

Crawford said that for the "Portrait" she chose instruments with which Bradstreet would have been familiar--soprano and alto recorders, violin and harpsichord, as well as a soprano soloist. The composer also used dance forms roughly of that era.

"The piece hearkens back in its form to her period, but not in its sound," she said. "It's written in a sort of conservative style, but it has its own integrity.

The work was originally commissioned in 1980 by Linda Gold, head of the dance department at Santa Monica College, where Crawford was teaching music.

"I was her music director," Crawford said. "She had a group called Synapse. They did a lot innovative things. She wanted some music for herself. It was for a solo for her.

"Since I didn't write pure dance music, I wanted music that would stand on its own. I made it into a little biographical drama. She actually did dance half of it. But it was then only a work in progress."

Crawford said that work has been published, but "to my knowledge it has never had a full public performance on the West Coast.

"I'm sure it's been performed in the East since I've had royalties from it," she said. "The trouble is, as a composer, you never know who or where. Once a piece is published, you don't know who does it."

She does know who will be performing it here, however--the Harmonia Baroque Players, a small chamber ensemble formed in 1984 by Yorba Linda recorder player Marika Frankl.

Crawford earned a master's degree in composition at Harvard, studying with Walter Piston, and later, when she came to California in the early 1970s, with Henri Lazarof at UCLA.

Crawford described herself as a "free-lance producer, writer, musician and teacher" and said that she actually "almost threw the (Bradstreet) piece out.

"But somebody found it in Florida and gave it to a publisher in New York. He couldn't find my telephone number, but eventually, somehow, he found me across the country and published the piece. That encourages one. I haven't found things too easy as a composer.

"It's just hard. I admire the people who stick to it and do nothing else. That's a full-time career. So far I haven't been able to do that. But I'm always hoping for it."

What: Harmonia Baroque Players give West Coast premiere of Dorothy Lamb Crawford's cantata "Portrait of Anne Bradstreet."

When: Sunday, May 5, at 4 p.m.

Where: Christ Church by the Sea United Methodist, 1400 W. Balboa Blvd., Newport Beach.

Whereabouts: Take Newport Boulevard south until it turns into Balboa Boulevard; continue to the church.

Wherewithal: $6.

Where to Call: (714) 673-3805 or (714) 970-8545.

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