Grammy winner’s portrait of female Supreme Court judges headlines Sunflower Music Festival

Libby Larsen’s “The Supreme Four” will debut on June 26 as part of the Sunflower Music Festival in Topeka. The Grammy winner is a member of the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. (Ann Marsden)

TOPEKA – Libby Larsen remembers how she felt in 1981 when the first woman was appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

She was 30 years old and was one of the few female music composers in the country with a doctorate – “which has her own history,” she says – when Sandra Day O’Connor became the most powerful and important in the world. government.

“I felt at the time that the door had opened for the next 200 years,” Larsen said. “It takes several generations to really make a change, gradually, over time, over time, over time.”

Now a Grammy winner and a member of the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, Larsen is set to launch a new work celebrating the first four women to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. The June 26 performance will close the nine-day sunflower music festival, which begins Friday, at Washburn University in Topeka. All events are free.

David Woods, a member of the festival’s board of directors, planned a series of events to honor women in music for the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. The festival was delayed for a year by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Larsen met Woods 25 years ago when he was at the University of Oklahoma traveling with a group of female brass players. When Woods asked him to attend the festival, Larsen said, his mind immediately turned to the Supreme Court.

“I guess that rings true for me, for a center of me, because in music there are many, many laws – natural laws, physical laws, then laws derived from culture. As Bach’s sonority is a system of laws. How Chuck Berry sounds is a different system of laws, ”Larsen said. “If we have a system to guide us into further iterations of being, then there is something essential about it. So I think I connected at that level.

Is the sound of Larsen a law? Probably, she said. His work is the subject of several doctoral theses.

“I learned a lot about the laws that govern my own work from the people who study it,” Larsen said. “I don’t know what they are – they just exist in me. So it’s very different to be a Supreme Court judge.

Libby Larsen researched each of the four Justices of the United States Supreme Court so that she could write and compose a portrait of how each thinks about the law. The “musical motif” is carried in its composition by the French horn. (Ann Marsden)

Its composition, titled “The Supreme Four”, took seven months to complete.

Larsen hired a research assistant to learn as much as possible about O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. She was surprised to learn how clear and passionate each woman was about the law. Then Larsen teamed up with a writer to try and capture the essence of how every judge thinks about the law. They formed a script that includes a one-minute intro for each of the four judges.

Larsen said it was easy to find personal details about Ginsburg because she had been “in the popular eye” for so long. The others were more difficult.

O’Connor’s approach to the law was shaped by his experience growing up on an Arizona ranch and the importance of performing routine chores.

“What I kept coming back to,” said Larsen, “is the quote we use to present it, namely,“ Do your best in every task, no matter how unimportant it may seem. No one learns more about a problem than a person at the bottom of the ladder. ‘ “

Larsen completed the work before the pandemic. Larsen has considered expanding work to add new judge Amy Coney Barrett after Ginsburg’s death last year.

Larsen says she made “a musical motif”, presented by the French horn, which represents the law.

“You will hear this motif in different ways in each of the portraits,” Larsen said. “You will hear a full orchestra, with strings and percussion, woodwinds and brass. You will hear an orchestral piece. But you can follow the idea that we are talking about something important here, and that is the law. And here are four human beings, extraordinarily bright, passionate human beings, who have dedicated their lives, truly given their lives, to the law. I think that’s what you are going here.

The performance will be narrated by Governor Laura Kelly.

Woods secured a $ 40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to help produce the festival, which takes place at the university’s White Concert Hall and will be broadcast live. Performances include jazz, piano, chamber ensembles and Scottish folk songs.

There is a theatrical production of “Woman on a Ledge”, a new musical piece written and directed by Rita Costanzi. Her story explores the vulnerabilities of a musician torn between artistic needs and those of her husband and children.

An exhibition of artwork made by women during the suffrage era will be on display at the university’s Mulvane Museum of Art.

On the final evening, WIBW-TV’s Melissa Brunner will host a panel discussion with Larsen, Kansas Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Wilson, and Colorado Supreme Court Justice Jean Dubosfsky, Topeka High School graduate. The other panelists are conductor JoAnn Falletta and Washburn University President Jerry Fraley.

“There is so much for people to enjoy and learn during this festival,” said Woods.


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