The news of Julia Wolfe's Pulitzer Prize for the choral work Anthracite Fields arrived with gratifying timing for the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, which premiered the piece. The group was facing a Monday night rehearsal for a new outdoor piece amid a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms.
"When they're standing there in the rain," said music director Alan Harler, "at least I'll have given the singers something to be happy about."
Monday's Pulitzer was an unexpected award for one of the chorus' largest projects and a particularly ambitious effort by Wolfe. "I think of myself as off the beaten path. When you take that road ... you don't know what's going to happen," she said. "But every so often, somebody shines a light on it."
Almost a year ago, the chorus unveiled the piece about Pennsylvania coal-mining country by Wolfe - born in Philadelphia but raised in Montgomeryville, with family roots in coal culture - in the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, with choreography by Leah Stein. Commissioning partners included the Mendelssohn Club, the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, and the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia.
Acclaimed by critics, Anthracite Fields was also a success when performed weeks later in the New York Philharmonic Biennial. Though Wolfe had explored the American worker with 2009's Steel Hammer, a Pulitzer finalist about John Henry folklore, Harler said, "I think [Anthracite Fields] was a creative breakthrough."
Wolfe, 56, extensively researched coal-mining culture while writing the piece, visiting now-dormant mines, interviewing people in and around Scranton, and ultimately assembling a singable text with lists of injured coal miners and speeches by the labor activist John L. Lewis.
"The idea was to honor the people who worked in that industry - underground and in the dark. Their stories are there," she said. "I can't tell you how many people came up to me after the performances and said, 'My father was a miner. ...' "
Educated at the University of Michigan, Wolfe is part of a new generation of minimalist composers known as the Bang on a Can collective. Based in Manhattan, she was initially known for severe, extreme pieces for multiple bagpipes or massed double basses. In recent years, her works have become more mainstream, along with those of her Bang on a Can colleagues David Lang, also a Pulitzer winner, and Michael Gordon, her husband.
"We're a team that has been together for 30 years," she said. "We have ongoing dialogue [about their pieces], and it's a treasure ... a village, and everybody gets their awards at different times."
Read more about "Anthracite Fields," a choral piece born in the heart of a mountain: www.philly.com/anthracitefields
Fiction: "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr (Scribner).
Drama: "Between Riverside and Crazy" by Stephen Adly Guirgis.
History: "Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People" by Elizabeth A. Fenn (Hill and Wang).
Biography or Autobiography: "The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe" by David I. Kertzer (Random House).
Poetry: "Digest" by Gregory Pardlo (Four Way Books).
General Nonfiction: "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History" by Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt).
Music: "Anthracite Fields," by Julia Wolfe, premiered on April 26, 2014, in Philadelphia by the Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Mendelssohn Club Chorus.