Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State
Get turned on to classical music with Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra on March 2
Get turned on to classical music with Anthracite Fields on March 30

Coal Culture: Pulitzer-winning Anthracite Fields oratorio to evoke Pennsylvania mining life of yesteryear

By John Mark Rafacz

Bang on a Can All-Stars, which performed Julia Wolfe’s John Henry-inspired Steel Hammer at Penn State in 2009, returns to Eisenhower Auditorium March 30 for a concert featuring Wolfe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio Anthracite Fields. Penn State Concert Choir will join Bang on a Can for the performance.

Anthracite Fields commemorates the history of the northeastern Pennsylvania coal region, powerfully evoking through music, text, and images coal-mining life at the turn of the twentieth century. The oratorio weaves a tapestry of long-ago life and culture in the commonwealth. 

Featuring music and text by Wolfe, Anthracite Fields includes both the dark echoes of the underground and the moments of light in the lives of the miners who persevered.

Anthracite Fields “captures not only the sadness of hard lives lost … but also of the sweetness and passion of a way of daily life now also lost,” writes a Los Angeles Times reviewer. “The music compels without overstatement. This is a major, profound work.” 

The oratorio won the Pulitzer for composition in 2015, and the recording of the work was nominated for a Grammy Award. 

Wolfe, who grew up in the southeastern Pennsylvania town of Montgomeryville, composes music distinguished by an intense physicality and a relentless power that pushes performers to extremes and demands attention from audiences. 

Co-founder and co-artistic director of Bang on a Can, Wolfe also is a professor of music composition at New York University. She is the recipient of a 2016 MacArthur Foundation “genius” Fellowship.

The six-member Bang on a Can ensemble, marking its twenty-fifth anniversary this year, is recognized internationally for its dynamic live performances and recordings of some of today’s most innovative music. The amplified group crosses genres freely among classical, jazz, rock, world, and experimental music.

Penn State Concert Choir has toured throughout the United States and in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Great Britain, and Australia. The choir also has performed at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall, Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, and with The Rolling Stones at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field. 

Christopher Kiver, director of choral activities for the Penn State School of Music, conducts Concert Choir and Glee Club. He also oversees the graduate choral conducting program and teaches courses in choral conducting and choral literature. 

The Bang on a Can musicians will be in residence at Penn State for three days, while Wolfe will be at the University for two days.

In addition to the Anthracite Fields concert, Bang on a Can will perform March 29 at a Classical Coffeehouse in Hintz Family Alumni Center on the University Park campus. Classical Coffeehouse is free for Penn State students. A $5 donation is suggested for each community member.

John Mark Rafacz is Center for the Performing Arts editorial manager.

The Center for the Performing Arts is part of the College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State.
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