Photograph by
Anna Lee Campbell
and Henry Lopez

One of the rewards of Race for the Sky has been being a part of the growing circle of musicians across the country who are performing the music – as well as sharing the performances, the CD, and all the accumulated stories and research of the project with people from many different walks of life.

Pianist LeAnn Overton, violinist Katie Kresek and I first performed Race for the Sky together at the 48th National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) Convention in New Orleans in 2004. We bonded as an ensemble in that vibrant city. The performance in the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt was emotional for both the musicians and audience. Here is a response from the convention:

“I am happy to share my thoughts and feelings about the Race for the Sky performance I attended at the National NATS Convention in New Orleans last summer.

In all my years of concert going and music making, I don't think I have ever been so moved as I was during your performance of Race for the Sky. I was not expecting such an emotional impact when I arrived for the performance and was very curious about the piece itself having recently been introduced to other pieces by the composer, and because I live in New York and so had experienced the 9/11 tragedy first hand. I found myself weeping uncontrollably by the end of the piece, and indeed half way through it. The reaction was visceral to its core and was prompted by a combination of elements at play. The sheer power of the words from the victims’ families and the musical setting they were given, and the very sincere and powerful performances from you and LeAnn, all convened to render the listener emotionally naked and helpless. At least this listener.  And I certainly was not the only one that was feeling the impact of the piece this way. There was a man sitting 3 chairs to my left who was also weeping and I could see and hear others around me as well. There was a hushed, and reverent atmosphere in the room as befits the occasion of the piece but it went beyond this to the pure, emotional response of the words, music and performance.

Thank you so much for bringing this to life and for sharing it with those of us at the NATS convention, and as many others as you can. I wish you all the best in your continued work on the project and again, hope that you and others will be able to perform it in an unlimited way in the future. Lest we have nothing of this caliber to help us remember....


Dr. Lori McCann, Program in Vocal Performance

Steinhardt School, New York University

LeAnn, Katie, and I, together with flutist Karla Moe, recorded the CD Race for the Sky at Sean Swinney Recording Studios in Manhattan in the summer of 2005. In a strange streak of coincidence, we recorded the song cycle Race for the Sky on the day the levees broke from the impact of Hurricane Katrina. On that day, LeAnn, Katie and I were in the studio engulfed in anxiety together with recording engineer Sean Swinney, who is a native of New Orleans and was desperate on that day for news of his family.  The coincidence of two national tragedies touching each other in a Manhattan recording studio was not lost on us.

The CD was finished in the fall of 2005, and good friend and fellow musician Kelsey Halbert created the graphic design. The CD led its own life, reaching people with the story of Race for the Sky:

Dear Lisa,

I got the CD and it sounds wonderful.  Thank you.  It’s really only now, in private, that I can start to appreciate the subtleties and complexities of the music and how it fits together with the text.  The composition is beautifully structured and delicately handled and it still makes me cry.  Good luck with the performance tonight.  I’m sure you will be a big success!

Hilary North

Poet, “How My Life Has Changed”

Well, I put your materials in my suitcase in the hopes of reviewing your project, Race for the Sky, while on my journey, and I wanted to let you know that I was (like many others indicated in your literature) very taken with Richard Pearson Thomas' piece and your performance. This is an incredible project and the works need to be heard and shared… You sound just magnificent and the recording is just excellent. Congratulations not only for the musicality, professionalism, and talent, but also for your sharing a gift for others to gain a better understanding of the 9-11 travesty and ways for them to cope with their grief and hope for the future.

Daniel J. Green

Associate Vice President for Enrollment

Meredith College

On September 11, 2005, violinist Katie Kresek and I were honored to perform the first orchestrated version (orchestration by composer Richard Pearson Thomas) of “To the Towers Themselves” at the Westchester County dedication of the 9/11 memorial The Rising with the Westchester Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Paul Lustig Dunkel.

From the West Coast, two soprano audience members share their impressions:

I found Lisa Holsberg's performance of Race for the Sky at the 2004 Icicle Creek Music Festival to be a gripping, highly emotionally-charged piece of lyric theater. Not only were the texts, created by those directly touched by loss on September 11, 2001, poignant, painful, and relevant, but the masterful musical settings created a unique atmosphere for each poem that enhanced and illuminated their message. I was highly impressed by the virtuosity and flexibility of Lisa's vocal delivery, and how her pure, clear, colorful soprano honestly conveyed the texts' subtly shifting emotions. I cannot imagine a more fitting and accessible way to impress upon an audience the emotional cost of violent conflict than Lisa's stunning performance of Race for the Sky.

Juliana Gondek

Metropolitan Opera soprano and Distinguished Professor and Chair,

Division of Voice and Opera Studies, UCLA

Race for the Sky and the way you sang it was one of the most powerful moments I experienced, there [at Songfest 2003] or anywhere else.  Thank you for seeing that those works were created.

Jennifer Kult, soprano

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Mezzo-soprano Gayle Shay, opera director at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, heard two performances of Race for the Sky before she had the experience of singing it herself. Her lengthy response is a treasure for me because it encompasses not only the experience of performer and audience member, but also the ripple effect of what it means to be a teacher:

When I first heard Race for the Sky (summer 2002) my response was visceral, although not immediately so. It was not until the middle of the third movement and the beginning of the fourth that I allowed myself to stop listening as a singer and director (occupational hazard - I'm always constructing scenes in my head) and actually just let art roll over me. I was so captivated by Lisa's beautiful, subtle performance, particularly of the last movement, that I was swept up in the story. It was an emotional evening, to say the least.

As a result of that performance I felt determined to present the songs at Vanderbilt University where I am a member of the faculty. Not only did I want the chance to experience the music as an interpreter but I also felt strongly that the students needed to experience an art song cycle which had as its subject a contemporary event. Even if you were not in New York that day, or had no one directly affected by it, the event did affect us all. I felt there would be an immediacy which doesn't exist with a group of Schubert songs and which might draw the students to a different understanding of song performance. And, frankly, I knew the cycle would give me a chance to really engage my acting chops in a way I hadn't for awhile.

Of course, all of these things happened, and more. The process of preparing the songs with Melissa (pianist) and Carolyn (violinist) prompted much discussion -- far more than any other piece I've prepared with collaborators. First, as you might expect, we talked a great deal about where we were on Sept. 11 and who we knew who was directly involved. But, more surprisingly, we often lapsed into long discussions of what it would feel like to be lost to a child in this manner. (I suppose due to the line in the last song "hold my children for me"). Both Carolyn and Melissa are relatively new mothers (2 year old and 8 year old) and, while I have no children, I had been recently married and we had begun talking about adoption. As a result of these conversations, I really struggled with how to interpret the final song. Angry, bitter, resolved, consoling, compassionate? All of these are more. Ultimately, I took a more bitter approach and, while it worked to some extent, next time I will likely do just the opposite. I had overlooked the redemptive quality of the Meditation and, by the time the fourth movement arrives, the audience is ready for some glimmer of hope.

After the performance (sept. 2004), which was exhausting, the response was significant. My dean sent me the following email:

"Your recital Saturday evening was really wonderful. The program was obviously selected with great care, and you sounded glorious -- the best I've ever heard you, which is saying a lot. And, as I told you Saturday, the 9/11 songs were transcendental. "

And a colleague (a pianist) sent me the following:

" . . and the American songs which were stunning. This was honestly one of the best recitals that I have heard in Nashville in all the years I've lived here. I do hope you'll get to do those wonderful songs again."

I include these responses because I rarely get written responses to my recitals and it obviously had a great deal to do with the music. The students fairly buzzed at the next performance class (a gathering of all the voice majors). They wanted to know where I had found the songs, who the composer was, what it was like to work on them and, even more significant in my view, they wanted to share stories of that day (we have a number of students from the northeast) and how their individual experience affected their hearing of the songs.

That response has not stopped, either. A month or so ago I was in my bathroom putting on my makeup and listening to "The Connection" (call-in show from Boston) on NPR. The guest that day was a composer (whose name I can't remember!) and the topic was new music. Toward the end of the show a young man named Zach from Nashville called in. As soon as I heard his voice, I knew he was a student of ours, a senior with the goal of theatre singing. He said, in that oh-so-eloquent way only college men can achieve, that people should really try to remain open to new music. He had never been a fan until last fall when one of his teachers performed a new song cycle, Race for the Sky, based on texts from 9/11 and the experience had been for him "powerful and transformative."

Of course, I was flattered by the comment but I think, truthfully, it was the combination of performance, accessible yet challenging music and a text which had immediate and personal connection for him which made that evening something he felt compelled to talk about months later.

In conclusion (finally!) the experience of working on and performing these songs has sparked my thirst for good contemporary material. I've done new works before but have never had the response I had with Race for the Sky. I wonder if the songs will hold up after 20-30 years have passed and the event has begun to fade. But I will be eternally grateful that I was able to experience them in the beginning. Maybe this is what it felt like to stand on stage and be one of the very first to sing Strauss's "Four Last Songs."

No wonder . . .

Gayle Shay

Assistant Professor of Voice and Director, Vanderbilt Opera Theatre

Vanderbilt University

In Cincinnati, soprano Velma Guyer performed Race for the Sky in the summer of 2006.  Here are her words after receiving the CD and then reflecting back upon her own performance:

(2006):  I arrived home last night after a rehearsal and found your package waiting on my porch. It was after 10 by then so I decided to wait and listen when fresh in the morning. I put the CD on and while drinking my coffee, dissolved into tears almost from the first phrase. I like to hear something first without the score and just let the sound wash over me. Your voice is lovely and more important than that even, is that you sing with a sensitivity and heart that connected with me immediately…I love these pieces and feel already that this will be one of the most important performances I have done since coming back to graduate school….maybe even in my life….As more than 25 years of my life were spent in Europe, I have been feeling disconnected in a way about many things that happened in 2001. I was in Switzerland then and was visiting a friend in hospital when the news came to us of the Twin Towers and other attacks. No one could believe it over there at all.

(2010):  I am very moved that you would want to include my comments about this experience as well as the whole concept which was such a great contribution. You must know that the performance we did at CCM Grandin Vocal Chamber Music Festival absolutely left the audience in utter silence and many tears fell.