The phoenix has inspired artists, writers, builders and leaders throughout the centuries. The ultimate symbol of rebirth, of hope springing from loss, the mythical desert bird is said to burst into flame at the end of its life, often wreaking terrible destruction, only to come to life again.
It is the city’s namesake and, for two Arizona artists, a metaphor for Phoenix and its inhabitants.
The Phoenix Chorale will be premiering the work by these two artists, soprano and composer Kira Zeeman Rugen and Phoenix’s first Poet Laureate Rosemary Dombrowski, Friday, March 18, to Sunday, March 20, as part of its “re:BIRTH” concert.
The work, “Out of the Ashes,” reflects on the phoenix and all that it means for a city that continues to survive and thrive.
Surprisingly, the work was not born out of the pandemic but was finished before it; however, its premiere was delayed by the COVID-19 shutdowns.
Rugen, who has composed several pieces for the Phoenix Chorale since joining them in 2004, was commissioned to do a new piece and she sought out a poet who could help her express what she wanted to accomplish with this work. She found Dombrowski, who was the city’s first poet laureate.
“I was thrilled,” Dombrowski says. “I mean, I had never embarked on a project like this before. I had never written lyrics for a song.”
For both, it was a new experience. For Rugen, she was used to working with dead poets. For Dombrowski, she was used to simply handing off her work to another artist. Instead, they had an intense back-and-forth collaboration.
Their process had them constantly revising and reworking. Dombrowski would provide the poem; Rugen would compose. Then, Dombrowski would move lines around or change a few words. Rugen would work with the musical phrasing and making sure each word got the treatment it deserved.
“It was the truest collaboration,” Dombrowski says. “She started to explain the composition process to me, and so every time she needed a change, I knew it was real. We would ask questions — do we want to rhyme? Do we not want to rhyme? Do we want alliteration here? How do we tell the story?”
The story, they say, was about the phoenix, and they wanted to incorporate many different elements of the phoenix myths from all around the planet. The story, like the city it is based on, needed to be multicultural and not just give one version of the bird. Rugen did a great deal of research pulling out tales that came from Greek, Chinese and Japanese mythology. Together, they talked about how they could combine those things to make the city of Phoenix version of the bird. They even incorporated elements of the Thunderbird, as it had Phoenix ties.
One of the first things they settled on was that the bird was gender fluid. The older bird is male and the newly born baby bird is female.
“It literally is in the literature,” Rugen says. “When it dies, it could be reborn either gender. We made this gender fluid creature because I think that is so much more representative of the city. We wanted it to be a representation of the modern city of Phoenix, and I think that allowed us to do that.”
Early on, they decided the story needed to have concrete, because the city has so much of it, and that their phoenix would descend upon a city, be a part of the city and rise from the city. It would also encounter the desert. It would not exist in a mythological place. Elements include an Arizona monsoon, a salt river, the Phoenix summer heat, mountains, cicadas and plants native to the area.
“We had to have that sort of intersection between desert and bird and city and bird,” Dombrowski says.
The result was something Rugen felt ended up being a little prophetic because of what came next in the world. It was so prophetic, in fact, that they didn’t make any changes to it when the new artistic director scheduled it for the March premiere.
“Before we could even have the premiere — because it was supposed to happen two years ago — there was a pandemic,” Rugen says. “I look at it now and it is so much more than just about the city of Phoenix and the people of Phoenix and their birth. Now I see it as like humanity. It’s everybody. It’s everywhere. It’s the multicultural bird that you find everywhere. It grows old, it gets sick, it dies, it dies in fire and ash and water and rain. We have this big storm that has happened, metaphorically and realistically. And then we have at the end, a rebirth and baptism of the people. And to me, it’s just like, oh, my God, we’re seeing that’s happened in real life.”
The chorus will sing the song a cappella with the only instrument a big drum when the bird dies.
Dombrowski says she wrote about Phoenix enough to know that she had to represent its flora and fauna along with the resilience of a city that has emerged in the middle of a hostile, waterless desert. She says she has contemplated how anything thrives in such an inhospitable space and that she thinks the phoenix is a metaphor for everyone who ends up in the city.
For her, it also represented a particular segment of the community.
“The phoenix represents the artists that I’ve grown up with here, who have raised me in the desert and on the streets of Phoenix,” Dombrowski says. “It represents the power of artistic communities that take flight. It represents their power to rebirth people within those communities, to help us find our rebirth.”
In addition to “Out of Ashes,” the chorale will perform Aaron Copland’s “In the Beginning” as part of its Phoenix Masterworks Series. It will also perform “Tanzen and Springen” by Hans Leo Hassler, Felix Mendelssohn’s “Der Erste Fruhlingstag,” “Three English Folksongs” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, “lo son la primavera” by William Hawley and “There will come soft rains” by Connor J Koppin.
Rugen, who says she spent the pandemic at home composing, is pleased to be once again sharing art with audiences. This year will witness the premieres of six of her works. More than ever, she says her art needs to incorporate healing and nature, two things very present in “Out of Ashes.”
“Add the components of healing and nature and the rebirth of the arts, there’s some good reasons for people to come out,” Rugen says.
WHEN/WHERE: 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 18, La Casa De Cristo Lutheran Church, 6300 E. Bell Road, Scottsdale
7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 19, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, 100 W. Roosevelt Street Phoenix
3 p.m. Sunday, March 20, Camelback Bible Church, 3900 E. Stanford Drive Paradise Valley