Nelda Nelson | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Nelda Nelson


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Mezzo-soprano Nelda Nelson came across the poetry of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz about ten years ago, while pursuing a doctorate in Spanish literature at Indiana University. Sor Juana was a 17th-century Mexican nun whose passion for knowledge brought her both great acclaim and significant hardship. Known as "la decima musa," the tenth muse, the well-rounded woman taught herself to read Latin at age seven and began writing poems shortly thereafter; played several instruments; painted admirable miniatures; became proficient in medicine, canon law, astronomy, and advanced mathematics; and accumulated a library of some four thousand books, then the largest in the New World, before succumbing to the plague at age 53. A tireless servant of the church--especially in the conversion of Aztecs--Sor Juana also challenged some of its doctrines to the point of being called up for heresy. And though she was averse to marriage, and joined a nunnery to avoid it, many of her poems dwell on the nature of love. Centuries later she won one more heart--Nelson's. Nelson's husband, U. of C. composer John Eaton, also took an avid interest in Sor Juana's learned wordplay and forlorn yearnings and earlier this year finished four songs set to the good sister's texts. This weekend the songs will be unveiled for the first time, at a Mexican restaurant in Pilsen aptly called Decima Musa. Eaton is arguably the most original American art-song composer working today, and there's a good chance that these songs, tailored to Nelson's sultry voice, will be some of his best work. The first three, written in Spanish, each describe an aspect of love. In numbers one and three--about elusiveness and frustration--the vocalist sometimes sings into the piano to coax sympathy from the strings. The fourth song, "Tocotin," written in the Nahuatl language, depicts the birth of Christ in couplets; the text was used by Sor Juana on missions. Also on the program are Enrique Granados's Tonadillas and Falla's Seven Popular Spanish Songs. The accompanists are Eaton (piano), Paul Bowman (guitar), and Patricia Morehead (English horn). Sunday, 4 PM, Decima Musa, 1901 S. Loomis; 312-243-1556. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Phillip Fantl.

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