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Updated 8:00 AM March 9, 2009

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Evocative composition fine-tuned as U-M heads to Carnegie Hall

Find out how U-M was selected as a venue to workshop "Ask Your Mama" >

A new eclectic multimedia musical composition featuring two high-profile alumni debuts at the grandest stage in America — Carnegie Hall. The original work was workshopped during an intensive week last fall with U-M music students.
U-M music students practice Laura Karpman's piece. "Their input was essential to the evolution" of the work, she says. (Images courtesy Michigan Productions)
Laura Karpman discusses alternations in her composition with George Manahan, who will conduct the March 16 performance at Carnegie Hall.

"Ask Your Mama," based on Langston Hughes' cycle poem of the same name, premieres March 16 as the centerpiece of the Honor! Festival at the historic concert hall in Manhattan. The 90-minute piece is a collaboration between Emmy Award-winning composer Laura Karpman (U-M Class of '80) and world-renowned soprano Jessye Norman (U-M '68).

Karpman drew inspiration from Hughes' 1961 book-length poem, written as an interdisciplinary soundtrack to accompany his words. Hughes' notes in the page margins of the book call for the words to be read along with the playing of a range of musical styles, including German Lieder, cha-chas, patriotic songs, Middle Eastern music, Afro-Caribbean drumming and, perhaps most notably, American jazz.

Karpman took up the challenge.

"Laura's composition pays tribute to 1930s music, ragtime, 1950s bebop, folk songs and gospel, a true survey of American musical styles," says George Manahan, who was on hand for the workshop in Ann Arbor, and will conduct the Carnegie Hall performance. Manahan is conductor of the New York City Opera.

From Monday through Sunday in mid-November, U-M student musicians worked side-by-side with Manahan, Karpman, Norman and Annie Dorsen, who directs the multimedia production. Modifications to the composition were made throughout the week, leading up to a private performance on Sunday, attended by a select audience.

"The U-M music school is uniquely set up for us to do this kind of workshop," Karpman says. "The use of technology in this piece requires a proficiency in the latest musical technology, and the students at U-M are incredibly talented in using a range of technology."

Karpman also notes the talent of the students is among the best in the country.

"U-M has an astonishing vocal studio and orchestra of young musicians who can be directed, and are willing to explore the possibilities of a piece," she says. "Their input was essential to the evolution of 'Ask Your Mama.'"

Ultimately, "Ask Your Mama" is a survey of American music, weaving assorted styles and instrumentation into a tapestry of jazz, gospel, hip-hop and ethereal swaths of orchestral music. The opus includes traditional orchestration, spoken and sung voice, sampled electronic media, and a range of percussion instruments.

The show includes performances by Norman, The Roots, Orchestra of St. Luke's and visuals by Rico Gatson.