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Jake Heggie discusses The Work at Hand

The late Laura Morefield (1960-2011) was a private poet, unknown to most people. Her mother, the gifted San Diego poet and writer Charlene Baldridge, has been a friend for nearly 20 years and I’ve set several of her poems. Laura was the friendly, bright-eyed, soft-spoken powerhouse I knew primarily as Charlene’s daughter, who I would sometimes see when they traveled on their annual mother-daughter adventures: a couple of times to a premiere of mine, then on a cruise through the Baltic when Frederica von Stade and I gave recitals as the entertainment. Laura was immensely proud of her mother’s poetry, but was fairly quiet about her own work. Shortly after the Baltic cruise in 2008, Laura was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. That’s when I found out about her poetry and asked if she would send me several, including her top 10 favorites. Shortly after, a packet of shatteringly beautiful poems arrived with The Work At Hand on top. I was completely overwhelmed and asked if I could set this poem one day. She was delighted. Not long after that – but after an extraordinarily brave fight – Laura passed away. None of us could believe it. She was 50 years old.

The Work At Hand is one of Laura’s post-diagnosis poems. It is about the difficult and deeply human experience of knowing it is time to say goodbye and let go: resenting, fighting, struggling, and then finding peace in acceptance. The language and imagery she chose is particularly striking: origami, the yoga Warrior 1 position, and a shimmering re-connection to nature.

The opportunity to set The Work At Hand presented itself when Jamie Barton asked for a new set of songs for her Carnegie Hall recital, and Anne Martindale Williams asked for a new piece to perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, where she is principal cellist. Being a little too busy these days (and counting my blessings for that), I suggested we combine it into a piece that exists as a chamber and an orchestral work. Both agreed. The premiere of the chamber version took place at Carnegie Hall on Feb 17, 2015 with pianist Bradley Moore. The orchestral version received its premiere May 15 in Pittsburgh at Heinz Hall, conducted by Michael Francis.

Laura’s final request to her mother was that she publish a collection of her post-diagnosis poems in a chapbook, and that exists as The Warrior’s Stance. All proceeds from sales of the book benefit the Colon Cancer Alliance (thewarriorsstance.com). I’m deeply grateful to Laura’s amazing husband Dan Morefield for his generosity in granting me permission to set The Work At Hand; and to Charlene for her passion, friendship and guidance.

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