Arts & Culture

Ancestral songs: Soprano Erin Guinup creates a recital around works by famous forebears.

Soprano Erin Guinup.
Soprano Erin Guinup. Courtesy

Mormons are known for being keenly familiar with their family history, including the 2 billion names stored on microfilm in a mountain vault near Salt Lake City and several extensive online databases. A Tacoma opera singer has found a creative way to make use of that genealogy that’s more about music than religion. Soprano Erin Guinup is presenting a vocal recital Friday night (Nov. 20) in the UP for Arts series in University Place Civic Center in which almost all of the songs have music or lyrics written by someone related to her, from Vaughan Williams to Emily Dickinson.

“I’ve really been into family history for a long time,” says Guinup, who inherited some family trees from her grandmother and did the rest of the research online. “I have close to 4,000 ancestors that I traced back, and I found presidents, Bing Crosby, Elvis — names that are fun to say. But I also found composers like Vaughan Williams and Samuel Barber. I thought doing a recital of their work was a clever way of connecting.”

Guinup, who’s a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, trawled through three major genealogy websites, all LDS-connected: familysearch.com, which was developed by the church; relativefinder.org, run by LDS’ Brigham Young University; and ancestry.com, purportedly the world’s largest online family history database and one which LDS partners with to make records free for church members.

Among her ancestors she found some famous artistic names: 20th-century English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (a ninth cousin twice removed), 20th-century American composer Samuel Barber (a 10th cousin twice removed), contemporary American composer Robert Cundick, and 19th-century American writers Henry Thoreau and Emily Dickinson.

“I have more extensive family trees on the English side, although I also have German heritage,” explains Guinup. “My American heritage goes back to the second or third ships after the Mayflower. We’ve been in this country a long time.”

The program, which is accompanied by pianist Margie Skreen Dickerson, begins with Vaughan Williams’ “Whither Must I Wander,” which echoes Guinup’s own discoveries in a text that searches for family and faith. Next is “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” by Barber, one of Guinup’s “all-time favorites,” and then a world premiere commissioned by Guinup from Canadian composer Mark Mitchell of six texts by Thoreau.

“They’re beautiful and hard,” she says. “They each have a different message about life, like simplicity. One is particularly apropos about race and what is happening in the world today.”

The program also includes a premiere by Cundick to Dickinson texts, a piece of Guinup’s own to words by her great-great-grandmother, Leonard Bernstein’s “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man” (he’s not a relative, but the text reminded her of her feminist grandmother) and some Irish songs including “Danny Boy” (“I’m 11 percent Irish, according to my DNA,” says Guinup).

Important to Mormons because of their value in tracing ancestors that can be baptized by proxy in order to be saved, family records had another meaning to Guinup — reassurance of her chosen vocation. Originally from California, she moved to Tacoma to study music at the University of Puget Sound, and was without any family here.

“My grandmother sent me a book of family history, and I realized my great-grandmother had been an opera singer,” Guinup says. “That started me on the process of finding out more. It’s a very musical family. So that kind of validated my choice to become a musician.

“I’m really excited about this recital,” says Guinup, who sings with groups such as Tacoma Opera and the Northwest Sinfonietta, as well as teaching privately and directing music for her church. “I don’t often do them. It’s a lot of work, but it’s been really good to put it together.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

SONGS OF MY ANCESTRAL ROOTS

Who: Vocal recital by soprano Erin Guinup with Margie Skreen Dickerson, piano.

When: 7 p.m. Friday (Nov. 20).

Where: Civic Building atrium, 3715 Bridgeport Way W., University Place.

Tickets: $15 adults, $5 students.

Information: upforarts.org.

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