April 12, 2013

AMHERST, Mass. — Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, has chronicled aspects of his own immigrant experience from Mexico City to the United States in memoirs, poetry, books and graphic novels.

For the last several months, he’s been collaborating with a children’s chorus, renowned composers and the Amherst College Concert Choir to add music to his creative repertoire, while bringing talented children and college students together to address the theme that’s consumed much of his creative energy.

The end result will appear onstage in Buckley Recital Hall at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 12, when the college and the Lewis-Sebring Family Foundation sponsor the world premiere of Tres Colores,a musical journey of immigration and hope in America. The event is free and open to the public.

The piece is a collaboration between Stavans, who wrote the lyrics; Marcos Carreras, coordinator of vocal music at Kingswood Oxford School in West Hartford, Conn.; Francisco J. Núñez, founder and artistic director of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City; and composer Jim Papoulis. It will be performed by Cantabile, the Kingswood Oxford middle school chorus. After its Amherst premiere, Tres Colores is scheduled to be performed in other venues in Boston and New York City.

The Amherst concert will also include two other songs—one in Hebrew, a prayer for peace, and the other in Zulu, a celebration of brotherhood and sisterhood—in a joint performance of Cantabile and the Amherst choir, directed by Mallorie Chernin.

“We are eager to join forces with the middle school chorus in songs that focus on the spirit and joy of community, and to engage in a discussion of immigration issues and music led by Ilan,” Chernin said.

Stavans said Tres Colores had its genesis in an invitation from Carreras, who, several years ago, had commissioned him to translate several poems from Spanish. Carreras invited Stavans to be the lyricist for the Tres Colores song cycle about a year ago.

Stavans said he used four languages—English, Spanish, Yiddish and “Spanglyiddish”—in writing the three poems, which have been set to music that is equally diverse.

“The music is incredible,” he said. “You hear modern music, salsa and klezmer. It feels like my life has been put in a blender and a little juice came out.”

When he wrote the immigration-themed poems, Stavans said, he tried to avoid politics or the ever-present debates that swirl around the controversial topic.

“I didn’t want to make anything strictly political or set it into the current political debate,” Stavans said. “This is about my own journey, and the poems’ expression of that journey is sometimes concrete and at other times abstract.”

Once he warmed to his task, Stavans said, he enjoyed the process of seeing his lyrics set to music and then performed during rehearsals.

Cantabile, the Kingswood Oxford middle school chorus

“There’s a lot of Cantabile practice going on,” he said. “Every so often I get a recording of a particular session to see if the pronunciation is right, if the rhythm is correct. It’s a kind of Tower of Babel project, in that you have the four languages—English, Spanish, Yiddish and then this mess of a language where you hear things that might sound like all three. That’s the intention: I want to create chaos, but ultimately bring some order to it.”

Tres Colores is intended to express the gratitude that many immigrants feel toward their adopted homeland, Stavans said.

“Although the debate about immigration in this country often turns nasty, in the end it’s the immigrant who falls in love with the idea of America in a way that natives often don’t,” he said. “I wanted to express my gratitude, while also paying tribute to extraordinary journeys that all immigrants make, each of them unique, but at the same time, many of them sharing themes of departure, arrival and utter transformation.”