A Beautiful Launch East Coast premiere of Sacred Place celebrates GW Alliance

By Anneliese Palmer

Tolstoy once stated that music is the language of emotions. That’s because music can connect unrelated concepts and express unexplainable emotions. And music might be the most capable academic discipline to celebrate the launch of GW’s new Alliance for a Sustainable Future and the 2024 Planet Forward Summit on April 17, 2024.

To commemorate the inaugural event of the GW Alliance, Dr. Robert Baker, Director of Performance Studies at GW, and Erin Freeman, Director of Choral Activities, selected Sacred Place from about a hundred possibilities.

Baker, a singer who performs with the Metropolitan Opera, the Washington National Opera, the National Symphony, and choral organizations across the country, performed for a national climate action group that had convened for a meeting at the church where he also works. In reflecting on the choice of music for Wednesday’s event, Baker considered the role of music within environmental and climate change storytelling.

“Sometimes, music is just for beauty. The world’s ugly,” said Baker, adding that as a consumer of news media and one who follows politics closely, he often thinks about how to bring people together and have civil discourse. Music is one way.

“A community of people are more whole than they might have been after engaging in music, and you leave a performance with a better understanding of yourself,” said Baker. “In a world that I care about, the people and the civil discourse which I hope to find myself in, does art make a difference? Can it?”

Baker and Freeman mulled-over a variety of climate and environmental music scores suitable for a public performance to commemorate the GW Alliance. They settled on Sacred Place, composed by Alex Berko for choir, violin, cello, and piano.

Sacred Place is “an ecological service that connects the old with the new, the sacred with the secular, and the individual with their community,” according to Berko’s program notes. Performed in 6 movements, the work features the words of environmental writers Wendell Berry, John Muir, Rabindranath Tagore, and others. The GW University Singers will perform the 20-minute choral piece celebrating the human-earth relationship.

Alex Berko, Composer of Sacred Place.

Conductor Freeman explained that when GW Alliance Executive Director Frank Sesno visited the University Singers this semester, he mentioned the power of the arts to connect the head and the heart, creating a stronger message.

“As individuals, as a community, we have a job to make sure we put the planet on the right track. But if it doesn't hit us in the heart, then it's harder to make the case. The way [Berko] has created an arc, the way he has set the phrases in text, it pulls at the heart and helps solidify the message.

“But I think it also gives hope. I think when there's a big job to be done, there's a lot of noise surrounding it in the news and on social media, and so much of the noise is ugly. The task seems overwhelming! We’re faced with this world filled with so much vitriol and anger and hate and ugliness. And yet, with a piece of music like this, we have the opportunity to tip the scales a little bit more toward beauty, reminding us that beauty can exist, and that's worth pushing towards. It's worth the fight,” said Freeman.

The audience will see the words of the choral piece projected on the screen while the chorus sings.

Prior to Sacred Place, Baker will discuss the value of music. The event will also feature a conversation with Senator Chris Coons, co-founder of the Senate Climate Caucus, remarks from President Ellen Granberg, Provost Christopher Bracey, and Alliance Executive Director Frank Sesno. The East Coast premiere of Sacred Place will conclude the evening’s program.

As professor at GW for over 30 years, Baker says he likes working with GW’s diverse student demographic in music. “It’s a creative environment where almost all our students are double majors. We have lots of minors, and we have lots of people in the choir who are majors in many other disciplines. This performance intersects with what they do,” said Baker. “I can't imagine anyone of their generation who is not interested in environmental issues.”

Sacred Place will have its East Coast premiere on April 17, 2024, in Lisner Auditorium at 6PM. Register here.