A new nonprofit music school, new music, and the legacy of two important women will be celebrated at a free concert Friday at Davenport’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.
Hannah Holman — principal cellist for the Quad City Symphony and artistic director of The Deanery School of Music, 1103 Main St., Davenport — will perform with pianist Michelle Alvarado at 7:30 p.m. in the cathedral’s Great Hall, 121 W. 12th St, Davenport., with poetry readings by New York-based Eric Starr, and music by Eric Starr. This concert of new music for piano and cello is a tribute to visionary authors and social campaigners Vera Brittain (1893-1970) and Winifred Holtby (1898-1935).
In addition to their literary ambitions, Brittain and Holtby campaigned tirelessly for world peace, women’s rights, and racial equality. Brittain summed up their work in three words: “peace, justice, compassion.”
“I’m very excited, as this is a world premiere,” Holman said recently. “We will be performing this at the University of Iowa music school on Saturday and in Waverly on Sunday, but Davenport is the world premiere.”
“It’s free and I think it’s a really, really beautiful concept. We are accepting donations and I will speak about the status of the opening of the Deanery at the concert,” she said.
Starr — a 49-year-old composer, teacher and author based in Cold Spring, N.Y. (an hour north of New York City) — first wrote for Holman, who’s friends with pianist Alvarado, for a chamber concert they did at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in October 2018.
“I really wanted to write something extra special because after all, it’s Carnegie Hall, right?,” Starr said Monday. “Quite a gig. So like most composers, we tend to write about what we know and that really means that we tend to write about our own lives. We tend to write about our own musical thoughts and I thought I wanted to do something that’s a little bit outside of my home.
“I wanted to see if I can write something that has some connection to history and to someone I admire in history and I wasn’t sure who that person was,” he said. “I was reading lots of books and doing lots of research and I learned about Vera Brittain and I became really enamored with her story, really inspired by her her writing and about her legacy.”
Campaigning as social activists
Winifred Holtby is connected to Brittain, being very close friends, and they campaigned together as social activists. Starr will read from their poems at the Davenport concert, and they inspired him in penning the cello-piano music.
“These are poems that I particularly loved and felt a connection to, so I tried to fashion music that would complement the poetry. But this is instrumental music. There’s no libretto or lyrics,” he said. “It is participatory. It does require that the audience is kind of active in their own imagination and they don’t really need to know a lot about the authors, but hopefully the combination of the music — which is imagistic — and the poetry, at minimum, conveys a mood or moods.”
Both women were both “really involved with the peace movement after World War I, which, of course, was one of the most devastating wars in history,” the composer said. They both were part of campaigning for the League of Nations up until about 1937.
“Secondly, they were very involved with women’s rights and feminism, which is an ongoing struggle today,” Starr said. “But even then I think it was more pronounced, so they wrote and lectured about women’s issues. And thirdly, they were involved with minority rights and racial equality. Particularly Winifred Holtby, who did a lot of work in South Africa. And she was really involved in trying to bring equality to the races.
“So, all three of those issues were important to both women — racial equality, peace and women’s issues,” Starr said. Ultimately, he wanted to do more than just honor these women.
“It’s the ideals, it’s the values,” he said. “These are issues that are ongoing, of course, and things like peace will be an ongoing pursuit to the end of our time here on this Earth as a species. I do think that it’s still important for us not to be cynical about it and for each generation to do our part. As a musician and composer, I feel that I’m most potent or powerful when I use my music to say something about humanity. And hopefully, you’ll be a part of a movement that is concerned with a brighter future, for our children.”
It’s ideal to have two female musicians celebrate the achievements of two historic women, Starr said.
“It really is relevant and important and critical that women perform this music,” he said. “I’m very blessed and honored to have these two wonderful pros applying my music. It’s a real joy to work with both Hannah and Michelle.”
A public debut for Deanery School
The Deanery music school is in the historic two-story stone building, next to Trinity Cathedral, that had been vacant since 2009. Previously, the 5,500-square-foot structure was the residence for the Dean of the Cathedral and it’s in the midst of a total renovation, including all the walls repainted, many windows repaired, building of a first-floor handicapped-accessible bathroom, and renovated kitchen.
Out of the planned total construction cost of $220,000, the nonprofit has raised $180,000, school executive director Rishi Wagle said Sunday. That includes major grants from the Hubbell-Waterman Foundation (a $50,000 matching grant), the Scott County Regional Authority ($30,000), and Moline Foundation ($5,000).
The Oct. 22 concert is not considered a fundraiser, but more an introduction to the community, he said. “We do have a lot of initial costs, being a startup organization.”
There will be one teaching studio on the first floor and five upstairs. Some of the pianos for the school have been donated, Wagle said. In addition to individual private lessons, there will be chamber music and group lessons, with scholarships available. The Deanery school has raised $9,000 so far for scholarships, he said.
“That’s another central part of the mission – that everyone who wants to pursue music education should have the opportunity to do so,” Wagle said. They hope to start in-person private lessons by late December. Group and chamber music lessons will start in January.
Holman (based in Iowa City) is an adjunct cello instructor at University of Northern Iowa, and has restarted playing in the orchestra for the New York City Ballet.
While most Deanery lessons so far have been offered online, last spring there was a chamber music group that met in person, masked and distanced, and over the summer there were two chamber “boot camps” with Holman in person at the Cathedral’s Great Hall.
One session was for high school and college age (11 participants), and one for adults (9 participants). They were each a couple days long, and people also wore masks.
“People seemed to really enjoy those couple days,” Wagle said. “After the pandemic, people enjoyed making music with other people.”
Historical and sentimental value to site
After the Cathedral discontinued using the Deanery building as a residence, they really debated what to use it for, he said. “It was costly to maintain and renovate, but they didn’t want to tear it down, because there was a lot of historical and sentimental value to the building,” he said.
“They were looking for proposals from people to take over the building, undergo the costs of renovation, and that ended up being us,” Wagle said. “The Cathedral is really excited about what we’re doing as well, and the utilization of this space for this brand new offering.”
Last December, following months of negotiations between the Cathedral’s Vestry and the new Quad City Music Academy’s Board of Directors, Holman came to an agreement for a 15-year lease on the 90-year-old building and the QCMA renamed it The Deanery School of Music.
The Deanery has a nine-member Board of Directors, that has been meeting monthly.
“I am thrilled to introduce to you a school in the Quad Cities that has long been a dream of mine!” Holman wrote on the school website, thedeanery.org. “Students in the Quad Cities deserve a safe, empowering, and inspiring space to flourish as people and musicians. With the help of so many, we have collected passionate educators, ready to help everyone come together through music.”
Wagle, 23, was named to his new job last March and this August, he began a master’s program in music education at the University of Iowa. He’s able to balance both because The Deanery is a part-time position, and some of his responsibilities he can easily do from Iowa City.
“Balancing studies with part-time employment is definitely not something I am unfamiliar with,” Wagle said. When he was an undergraduate at Brown University (graduating in 2020), he held several part-time positions, and also was very involved in the theater community.
“Right now, it’s been working very well – I’m in week eight,” Wagle said of grad school. “I don’t have any classes on Thursdays, so on Wednesdays after my last class of the day, I drive here to the Quad-Cities, and Thursdays are the days I’m typically doing Deanery School of Music work.”
“A lot of the work that I do is not tied to the site, the building, or being in the Quad-Cities,” he said, noting e-mail correspondence, financial management, filling out grant applications, and maintaining social media accounts.
“So far, it’s worked out well, I would say, and I am able to balance both commitments pretty well,” Wagle said. On the weekends, sometimes he’s back in the QC, and he’s continuing as lighting and sound coordinator for his alma mater, Pleasant Valley High School.
At Brown, he worked all four years as a residential peer leader, and he also managed a performing arts venue on campus.
Starr is thrilled to make his first visit to Davenport also because it’s the hometown of jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931). “I’m excited to go to Davenport just as a big fan, because that’s where Bix is from,” he said. “I grew up listening to his music, and I still listen to it all the time.”
The Oct. 22 concert is free (with a $20 suggested donation). For more information on the school, visit thedeanery.org.