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Except for her hands, Beth Willer is nearly motionless, back to the audience, a quiet presence in the midst of swirling, ethereal sound. But her hands, as she conducts the Lorelei Ensemble, are in constant motion, looping and circling, lifting the music upward.
When Willer (CFA’08,’14) founded the female vocal octet seven years ago as a BU master’s student, she knew she was taking a risk. Today, the group, which presents both new and early music, has a loyal following. They also have critics scrambling for adjectives—mesmerizing, hypnotic, pitch-perfect, pristine, adventurous, eclectic—to describe their sound.
Willer, the ensemble’s artistic director, says she hopes that people find the Lorelei experience “ear-opening,” that they will be so immersed in listening that they will be shocked to discover time has passed—and will completely forget to check their electronic devices. “It’s getting harder and harder to hold the attention of an audience,” says the new doctor of musical arts, who blends the sounds of past and present, ancient and modern, in projects rooted in community and social issues.
The Esther B. and Albert S. Kahn Career Entry Award that Willer recently received will help propel her musical vision. “What got me excited is that the judges were interested in art that was crossing boundaries into other disciplines and in projects that were focused on outreach,” she says. “They wanted to hear about innovation, and that’s at the forefront of our mission.” Willer plans to use the $10,000 Kahn Award to devote more time to building the ensemble and designing innovative programs.
Established in 1985, the Kahn Awards are funded by a $1 million endowment from the late Esther Kahn (SED’55, Hon.’86), and are presented each year to three College of Fine Arts students in the final semester of their undergraduate or graduate studies. This year’s other recipients are Kayleigha Zawacki (CFA’14), who has completed an undergraduate degree in lighting design at the School of Theatre, and Hoda Kashiha (CFA’14), who graduated Sunday with a master’s degree in painting from the School of Visual Arts.
Each year, the directors and faculty of the Schools of Theatre, Visual Arts, and Music choose eight semifinalists, and the CFA dean and the school directors select three—one from each school—as finalists. Winners are chosen by a committee, this year comprising actor, director, and producer Robert Walsh; Jane Pappalardo (CFA’65), cultural philanthropist, member of the MIT Council of the Arts, and a recipient of the 2013 Commonwealth Award for Cultural Philanthropy; John Harrington (CFA’85), the founder and chief mission officer of Advanced Practice Strategies and a board-certified medical illustrator and contributor to the New England Journal of Medicine, the Boston Globe, and Fortune magazine; and Linda Green (SED’63) and Deborah Kahn (SED’67), the daughters of Esther and Albert Kahn.
Winners are chosen based on several criteria: artistic talent and personal statements about their role as an artist in society, their concern for social issues, and their vision for how they will use the award to help launch their career.
“It’s so gratifying to have this institution underwriting some of the most important work I’ve done,” says Willer, who came to BU with a bachelor’s in vocal music education and trumpet performance from Luther College because she wanted to study with Ann Howard Jones, a CFA professor and director of choral activities. Willer appreciated the opportunity to share her proposal with the judges. “It was fantastic to present my contribution to the field to this elite group,” she says, “and have them validate that it’s something I should continue.”
For Zawacki, the Kahn Award is a confirmation that she should follow her dreams. “I’ve always known this is what I wanted to do,” she says, “but I didn’t think it was an option yet—the steel and other materials I use are so expensive. The award has given me the push I need to keep going, to start getting my work out into the world.”
Zawacki brought two examples of her sculptural welding to show to the awards committee, one a five-foot metal piece titled Tyger that rode the MBTA with her to her presentation. She also presented a small stand of trees, lit so that it grew to a giant forest of shadows on the wall. “I consider light another artistic medium,” she says. “It’s not an addition; it’s a component of the pieces. Without light, they don’t exist.”
The trees were part of Zawacki’s thesis project, an exhibition titled Light Conversations, designed to spark discussion on social issues. Every work on display incorporated light as an integral element, giving the static forms a sense of movement. And the tree sculptures included more: first, a soundscape of wind and rustling leaves, then a looming shadow—a performer’s giant hand extinguishing each tree, one by one. The sound of chainsaws. Darkness. A forest destroyed.
“Lighting is storytelling,” says Zawacki, who blends multiple art forms, which have included glassblowing and photography, in her work. Whatever the medium, the goal is the same. “We all know there are changes we need to make,” she says. “Whether it’s deforestation or rampant consumerism, until we talk about the issues and acknowledge them to each other, nothing will change.”
The work of painter Hoda Kashiha grapples with issues of identity in the midst of constant change, both social and political. “There’s always a challenge to find your true identity,” Kashiha says, thinking aloud about her life in Iran and here in the United States, where she feels she is always explaining herself to others, trying to help them understand who she is.
She came to BU to study with painters John Walker, a CFA professor, Dana Frankfort, a CFA assistant professor, and Richard Ryan, a CFA associate professor. She says she was thrilled to be at a school where she could focus fully on her painting—and where she could experiment. “Before, I just worked with watercolor on paper,” she says. “Then I tried oil on canvas. It was like a performance. I had to move; it was completely physical. I could discover different angles of myself and make mistakes and sometimes magic happened.”
Kashiha, who has exhibited in Tehran, Brussels, and Athens, plans to use the award money to set up a studio in New York City and continue her explorations of masked and true identity, people and power. Each time I go to my studio, it’s like a journey inside of myself,” she says. “I discover new things.”
“Beth, Kayleigha, and Hoda are deeply committed and thoughtful artists, devoted both to the pursuit of excellence in their chosen medium and to meaningful contribution as citizens of the world” says Benjamin Juárez, dean of CFA. “Beth is surprising audiences with a fresh take on vocal music, old and new, with intense emotions and stories. Kayleigha is bringing social issues to light—literally. And Hoda is challenging viewers to think more deeply about identity and globalization.”