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Riders To The Sea

Roland Martin

Roland Martin's musical drama debuts at Buffalo Seminary

The premiere performances of a new drama in music by Buffalo composer Roland E. Martin, based on the play Riders to the Sea by the Irish writer J.M. Synge, take place March 11-13 at 7pm in the Performing Arts Center at the Buffalo Seminary. The play by Synge is a genuine modern tragedy, the starkly told story of Maurya, the wife of an Aran Island fisherman, who has already lost her husband and four of her five sons to the sea, before her final tragedy unfolds. Toni Wilson, finishing her 40th and final year at the Seminary, is the stage director for the production. The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams composed a one-act music drama with the same title in 1932 for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, and the work is generally recognized as his most successful operatic achievement.

“In May of 2006,” Martin told Artvoice, “after Toni and I first talked about my composing music for a new production of Riders to the Sea, I sketched out Maurya’s theme, exactly as it appears today, but it lay dormant until this past October. I’d known about Ralph Vaughan Williams’s work for 20 or more years, and while I consider it to be a masterpiece, I’ve only heard it once, about a decade ago in a recording. When I decided to compose my piece, I obtained a copy of the play, and worked from there.”

Vaughan Williams’s work has been called “the English Pelléas, for its sensitivity to the rhythm of language, in this case the curiously lilting syntax of the West Irish,”and for Martin, the music of that language was also all important. “The language is Synge’s rendition of Irish translated into English, and he uses it in all his plays, except Playboy of the Western World,” Martin said. “If I can brag about one thing, it is my sensitivity to setting the rhythm of language. I always try to make the music reflect the rhythm of the words. Perhaps I learned this from the vocal music of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gerald Finzi, both of whom are known for this. I did set the entire text, not altering a single word. I was informed, however, that I got one word emphasis wrong in a proper noun. Not one of the names, thank goodness!”

Martin carefully assessed the capabilities of his mainly young cast, Robin Epes (Maurya), Isabella Dixon (Nora), and Margaret Mugel (Cathleen), while composing. “I listened very carefully to the voices and their registers, so the range of each part is geared toward those singers. Aside from limiting the range, I made no compromise in the musical content. Toni has often used females in male roles [Sem being an all-girls school], but we felt this needed a real male voice. Tenor Jeff Porter [Bartley] is so reliable, and has such a wonderful sound, I knew he’d be perfect for it. The girls were skeptical before they met him and heard him, but they love having him there, and I think he makes them raise the bar for their own singing.

“Because of our budget I kept the instrumental group small: oboe doubling English horn—very nice for the mood of the story [Christine Ford]; violin [Kelsey Shea], a Sem student and a remarkable player; viola [Anneke Ieda]; cello [David Meyer] and piano [Martin].”

When asked about the place of the work in his oeuvre, Martin replied, “It’s too early to tell. I have wanted to write a stage work for years, but I never thought this play would be the one I would first set. I have several librettos on my desk, some written especially for me, and even a ballet, but there has been no time in my life to write these.”

A performance by Kindred, a Celtic duo, featuring some of their original compositions based on the poetry of William Butler Yeats, will open the evening.

Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for students and seniors. Reservations advised, as seating is limited. Visit or call 885-6780.

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