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Daughter's words live on in composition, 'The Work at Hand'

Months before her death, Laura Morefield sent her poem, The Work at Hand, to composer Jake Heggie, who set it to music. Courtesy of Charlene Baldridge.
Published Nov. 10, 2016

Of four works on this weekend's Florida Orchestra program, Songs of the Sea: Britten, Elgar and Debussy, only three are actually about oceans. And they were an afterthought.

The piece inspired the concert, The Work at Hand, by American composer Jake Heggie, grew out of an unpublished poem about cancer. Its author, Laura Morefield, died at 50 in 2011, of colon cancer.

On Friday, Morefield's mother will attend the concert at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. Charlene Baldridge, 82, also watched the piece debut last year in Carnegie Hall, then with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

"It was wonderful to hear it," Baldridge said, "and it was surprising."

The surprising connections that created it line up like rows on a fuse box. In 2000, Heggie was an up-and-coming composer and pianist who had a concert in the San Diego area. Baldridge, who wrote for a performing arts magazine, interviewed him.

They talked for hours. Baldridge and her daughter, Laura, began going on cruises with Heggie and his husband. In the mid-2000s, a period in which he won a Guggenheim Fellowship, Heggie set four of Baldridge's poems to music, sung in concert by the likes of Kiri Te Kanawa.

Baldridge and Morefield, who lived in Laguna Niguel, Calif., had much in common. Both were former bankers who wrote poetry. They shared a secret humor, bursting out laughing at the same time when no one else had a clue.

The death of Morefield's estranged brother in 2000 changed hit her hard. "That made her realize life was so short, we needed to be together to enjoy the things we both enjoyed while we had time," Baldridge said.

One difference: Baldridge has no qualms about submitting her work for publication, something her daughter was reluctant to do.

"She was just devastated by rejection," Baldridge said.

Morefield filled up notebooks and volunteered at a food bank. In 2008, around the time she was diagnosed with cancer, Heggie asked her to send some of her poetry. Two months before she died, Morefield sent the composer several poems, The Work at Hand on top of the stack. In a subsequent interview with the Pittsburgh Symphony, Heggie called her work "magnificent, powerful, poignant, illuminating, shattering poetry."

The poem isolates moments as the disease advanced: When all I want to do is unfold a small quilt/of sunlight onto the cool green and sit very still,/to let the light of heaven flow over me like honey/until my bones are on fire with the beauty of it all.

The piece represents a wider collaboration than just with Morefield. Heggie wrote it with cellist Anne Martindale Williams of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and mezzo soprano Jamie Barton in mind. Both will perform at this weekend's concerts.

Then there is Florida Orchestra music director Michael Francis, who conducted the debut of The Work at Hand for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and conceived this concert. In another Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra interview, Francis marveled at the soulful cello line.

"You feel that the cello is saying the bits that Laura couldn't say in the words," Francis said.

Baldridge believes the music amplifies her daughter's intentions.

"It was angrier and more upset and more peaceful than I would have imagined," she said.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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