The Other Side of Storm – Revisited
Dr. Hubert Bird spent 30 years on the music faculty of the University System of New Hamphire, and has had a distinguished career as a composer, conductor, educator, and as a tenor soloist. Dr. Bird was born in Joplin, Missouri and grew up in nearby Baxter Springs, Kansas, where he now lives. Like the rest of the world, he was stunned by the devastation suffered by the city of Joplin in the May 22nd, 2011 EF-5 tornado. As he told me on the phone from his home last week, Dr. Bird went to Joplin to see just how bad it was. “I saw the devastation right after the tornado happened,” he said, then added a correction. “I should say, not right after, because I waited about ten days or so before I would go over there.”
Shocked and stunned by what he saw, Dr. Bird told me he utterly “lost it.” When he returned home to Baxter Springs, he got in contact with an old friend, Colonel L. Bryan Shelburne, retired conductor of the United States Army Band in Washington, DC, and now living in Georgia.
As Dr. Bird relates the story, “I had to talk to somebody, and I called Bryan. And we were talking about it, and I was relating certain elements of the devastation and my reaction, and how it had really affected me.”
Well, that’s one version of the conversation, says Col. Shelburne... he remembers a “different version of ‘who called whom,’ because my recollection is that I called him when I heard about the storm to be sure he was okay. As he remembers it, he called to tell me what had happened here. But in any case, we talked for a while. And it was just incredible, the kinds of damage, the level of destruction that had taken place here.”
But they do agree about what happened next. Says Dr. Bird, “Bryan stopped me and said, ‘Well, it sounds to me like there’s a new Bird work in there somewhere!’” And according to Col. Shelburne, “I couldn’t resist asking him if he didn’t suspect there was a story hiding in all of that.”
And Bryan Shelburne was right about his old friend’s creative instincts. Dr. Bird set out gathering poetic texts by, among others, Edwin Markham, and Missouri native Langston Hughes, and spent the next year composing an oratorio called The Other Side of Storm.
Why not “The Storm?” Dr. Bird explains, “I was not intending to write a work about the tornado itself. What I have come up with basically has a broader meaning than that. The tornado of course caused all kinds of ‘storms.’ Some of them are long-lasting and will take a long time to heal. And I’m addressing those in this piece.”
The Other Side of Storm was given its first, and until this weekend its only performance, in Joplin’s Memorial Hall in May 2012 before some 2400 audience members. And it had precisely the effect Dr. Bird was hoping for. “Those who have heard it have loved the piece and have been very vocal about it, how they reacted to it.”
With that in mind, and with the fifth anniversary of the tornado coming up this weekend, Hubert Bird decided to revive, and revise, The Other Side of Storm. He has added music, and his collaborator Duane Hunt has revised the text of the narration that is an integral part of the work. Hunt and his wife Gwen, who serves as the narrator, live in nearby Webb City but have close ties to Joplin. Says Duane Hunt, “I toured the zone, and in fact, where I was born and raised was no longer there. It was gone. I couldn’t even find the place any more. And that sort of gave me the inspiration to write the narration for this.”
Both the 2012 premiere and this revival of Other Side of Storm are a family affair for Dr. Bird: his daughter and son-in-law, soprano Jennifer Bird and tenor Bjorn Arvidsson, are once again serving as the vocal soloists for the piece. The couple spent a number of years performing in German opera houses and now reside in Boulder, Colorado, where she is Assistant Professor of Voice at the University of Colorado, and he teaches private vocal students.
Both times composer Hubert Bird worked the phones to gather a 50-piece orchestra from as far away as Minnesota. The addition this time that excites Dr. Bird the most is extra-musical. Danny Craven is General Manager of Joplin Eagle Television, the video production service for the Joplin school district, and headquartered at the new Joplin High School. After the initial 2012 performance Dr. Bird was put in touch with Craven to develop a visual component to be projected behind the orchestra and singers, synchronized with the music. “As we met,” says Craven, “different ideas for visuals have come up, and we made it fit to (Dr. Bird’s) vision. This is his piece and his baby, so we wanted to give him exactly what he wanted.”
The revised version of Hubert Bird’s The Other Side of Storm premiered last night at the Performing Arts Center at Joplin High School, and will be presented again tonight (Saturday May 21st) at 7:30. For information visit http://www.joplinproud.com.