Grammy-winning singer Susan Narucki draws from pandemic loss for stirring new album, ‘This Island’
The isolation and loss caused by the pandemic was profound for Susan Narucki, who lost her mother a few months before COVID-19 arrived in 2020. The much-lauded operatic soprano and distinguished professor of music at UC San Diego had to cancel her myriad scheduled concerts and create innovative ways to teach her students during a lockdown.
Narucki turned to poetry and music for solace. From that emerged the beautiful, deeply moving new album, “This Island,” along with the discovery of little-known female composers and an appreciation for librarians.
“I lost my mother, who I was very close to,” Narucki said. “She was 95 and had a great long life. I was in charge of her estate. Lots of things come up when you’re looking through your childhood home and having to travel back and forth from California to New Jersey.
“That was one aspect. But the other thing is, I lost so many longtime collaborators. Some passed from other causes, but some directly from the pandemic. A lot of important people in my life as a musician were leaving the planet.
“One of the incredibly difficult things about the pandemic was not being able to connect with the community of musicians. Making music is, for me, like breathing air.”
A champion of contemporary music, Narucki temporarily changed course. Reading poetry led her to songs written in the first half of the last century. In spring 2022, she and acclaimed pianist Donald Berman recorded 20 of them for “This Island,” released last month by Avie Records.
With Berman, her trusted collaborator since 1992, Narucki will perform some of those songs at UCSD’s Conrad Prebys Concert Hall Wednesday . The program will also feature works by contemporary composers.
Narucki has performed more than 100 premieres around the world and commissioned many new works, including two operas she produced and starred in.
“Inheritance,” which premiered in 2018, dealt with gun violence and was composed by Narucki’s UCSD award-winning colleague, Lei Liang. Her 2013 chamber opera, “Cuatro Corridos,” which included a section written by Liang, explored trafficking at the U.S/Mexican border. It was nominated for a Latin Grammy.
“I’m always inspired by Susan’s relentless search for the truth in music,” Liang said. “The projects we worked on confronted some of the most difficult issues of our time, including sex trafficking and gun violence.
“She delved into them with such compassion, deep emotion, and a belief music can do something good for our society …. To hear Susan sing is to hear the truth.”
Narucki was nominated for a 2020 Grammy in the Best Classical Solo Vocal Album category for “The Edge of Silence: Works for Voice by György Kurtág.” She worked closely on it with the iconoclastic Hungarian composer, who is now 97.
For “This Island,” Narucki did a deep dive into finding music set to poetry. It required hours of research.
“All of it was done in the same room I’m in now, the same room I was teaching from (remotely),” said Narucki, who lives with her husband, retired history professor David Rutherford. “I’m in the second bedroom in our little Hillcrest apartment. I discovered so many interesting pieces not performed or illuminated in many years — just through online databases.
“It’s amazing how helpful librarians all over the world are. It’s great that a community can come together to support research from far away.”
When gathering songs for “This Island,” Narucki had a definite requirement for each: a clear, strong expression of emotion. As the collection grew, she felt that the voices seem to be speaking to each other.
“I wanted to assemble works by composers who had a high level of confidence handling emotion,” she said. “It turned out that all were women. Isn’t that interesting!”
The most well-known composer on “This Island” — on which Narucki sings in French, Dutch and English — is Nadia Boulanger (in collaboration with Raoul Pugno). More famous for teaching, Boulanger stopped writing music in 1918, after her sister’s death.
The other three composers on the album are America’s Marion Bauer and Holland’s Henriëtte Bosmans, as well as France’s Elisabeth Claisse, who is so obscure Narucki is planning a Paris trip to learn more about her.
“These composers created music that’s strong, vibrant and unapologetic,” Narucki noted. “Much of it speaks to the beauty of long-lasting love with a person, love for life and appreciation of the majesty of nature.”
For Wednesday’s concert — which celebrates International Women’s Day — Narucki and Berman will mix songs from “This Island” with pieces by Tania León, Margaret Bonds and other female composers.
León, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and recent Kennedy Center Honors recipient, wrote music to Margaret Atwood’s poetry, while the late African-American composer Bonds set hers to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s fiercely feminist words.
Originally included in the program was a piece for voice, piano and electronics by Mexican composer Georgina Derbez, but her health hampered completion of the work. Instead, Narucki will perform it in a May 17 concert at the same UCSD venue.
In addition to performing and teaching, Narucki is co-curating a concert in a visual-art exhibition space in Vermont. The August event will feature sculptures, prints, enhanced lighting and, of course, her singing.
“Susan is a consummate artist,” Liang said. “I am inspired by her voice. It possesses such an incredible range of emotional intensity, musicality and sheer beauty.”
Susan Narucki and Donald Berman
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Conrad Prebys Concert Hall, UCSD, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla
Tickets: $10 - $15
Phone: (858) 534-2230
Wood is a freelance writer.
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