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Poetic link Concert, paintings are inspired by Pablo Neruda's work

Roland Martin works six jobs, including teaching at Buffalo Seminary and at the University at Buffalo's music department, directing the Freudig Singers and serving as music director and organist at St. Joseph University Church.

But sometimes, Martin finds time to compose.

And when he does, it's a joy for Buffalo. Martin is in tune with our area. His song cycle "A Northeast Gardener's Year" reflects the seasons of Western New York. His new song cycle, "A Rose Beside the Water," is based on the poetry of the Mexican poet Pablo Neruda. But it, too, has local inspiration.

"A Rose Beside the Water" was commissioned by the celebrated Buffalo painter Catherine Parker.

Their paths had been crossing for several years. Parker recently became a Catholic and joined St. Joseph University Church, where she was touched by Martin's setting of a Good Friday prayer.

"I found it deeply moving," she said.

When the Freudig Singers performed "A Northeast Gardener's Year," Martin asked Parker to create paintings to go with the cycle. She happily complied.

"It was something that had been in my head for some time, doing paintings of different months," she said.

When Parker commissioned Martin to write his second song cycle, she offered a painting as payment. He gladly accepted. She suggested he base the songs on poetry by Neruda, whose writings inspire her vivid, colorful art.

"I love Pablo Neruda," she said. "I had done a number of paintings from 'The Book of Questions' and Neruda poetry. He said he wasn't that familiar with Neruda, but said he would see what happened. And I said, 'Well, if it doesn't happen, get back to me, and we'll go in some other direction.' It's not up to me to tell a composer how he should be inspired."

Martin took to Neruda.

"You think of him as writing in Spanish, because he was a Chilean poet," he said. "What I didn't know is there were so many translations of his poetry into English. Beautifully done translations. By W.S. Merwin, for instance."

He chose eight poems to set to music.

"I was looking for subjects I could use to bind them together, that would make sense as a set," he reflected. "So I found poems with commonality of themes. The overriding theme was the rose, and then there were themes of night and the sea."

Some of the poetry is smoldering. One, titled "Drunk With Pines," begins: "Drunk with pines and long kisses. . ."

Another, called "Who Knows," begins:

I cannot speak to you about that brilliance.

Today I only want to find the lost

rose, hidden in the sand.

I want to share the oblivion.
Parker loves the sensual nature of Neruda's poetry, and believes that Martin's music brings out its elusive qualities.

"It's very sensual and very erotic and very beautiful, and so is the music," she said.

Two performances of "A Rose Beside the Water" are scheduled, featuring soprano Cristen Gregory, tenor Jeffrey Porter, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra violist Janz Castelo and Martin himself on piano.

The first performance is at 8 tonight at Slee Hall, with Parker's original paintings on display. Martin is also performing a number of masterpieces on the organ, including his own transcription of Wagner's ethereal Prelude to Act III of "Die Meistersinger."

The second performance is part of a concert by the Buffalo Chamber Playerst.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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