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Concert Benefits an Endangered UVM Classics Program

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Published November 29, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


The Call of Kinnaru - COURTESY OF JOHN FRANKLIN
  • Courtesy Of John Franklin
  • The Call of Kinnaru

Although ancient Greek dramas were set to music, their scores have virtually all been lost. So classics scholar John Franklin — who's also a keyboardist in a yacht rock band — re-creates them with his band the Call of Kinnaru, in which he plays lyre.

Burlington audiences will have a chance to hear the "new ancient music" when the band performs at Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center on Saturday, December 2. The sound has elements of '70s prog rock and contemporary experimental music, said Franklin, director of the classics program at the University of Vermont. "But it's really its own thing, because the rhythms we're doing are those of the original plays [by] Euripides and Aristophanes."

Those rhythms come from the texts, which did survive. "We're not composing something elaborate out of our own minds," Franklin said. "We're interpreting something that is surviving and then providing melodies and chords to go along with it according to ancient principles."

Video by Keith Silva, courtesy of John Franklin

The Call of Kinnaru will play selections from Euripides' Helen and Aristophanes' The Clouds on Saturday, with Brooklyn-based indie-folk duo Gawain and the Green Knight rounding out the program. "Songs of Greek Mythology" is a benefit for the Ambrose Graduate Fellowship in Classical Languages, the fund Franklin credits with keeping the advanced study of Greek and Latin alive at UVM after the university slashed its funding.

During a major restructuring, announced three years ago, classics was stripped of its department status and became a program in the newly created School of World Languages and Cultures. Funding for graduate teaching assistants was eliminated, Franklin said. In the past five years, the faculty has shrunk from seven people to four, and their offices and seminar room, formerly housed under one roof at 481 Main Street, are now scattered among three different buildings.

"It feels like we were kind of shoved into corners that we should not be in," graduate student Annaliese Holden said.

Professor emeritus Z. Philip Ambrose watched in disbelief as UVM withdrew support for what the institution itself calls "the original and quintessential liberal arts degree."

"I was horrified at the treatment of the classics department, which has had a long history at the University of Vermont," he told Seven Days last week. Ambrose joined the department in 1962 and served as its chair for 25 years before retiring in 2006. "And so I just, in the middle of this sleepless night, decided that I could assure that the graduate program could continue."

Ambrose is the sole contributor to the Ambrose Graduate Fellowship fund, which provides free tuition and a teaching stipend to two new graduate students each year for five years.

John Franklin - COURTESY OF MARCO SCIASCIA
  • Courtesy Of Marco Sciascia
  • John Franklin

Retaining the two-year classics master's program ensures that UVM can continue to offer undergraduate majors in Greek and Latin, Franklin explained, because graduate students and upper-level undergraduates take many of the same classes. Without grad students, the program would struggle to meet the 10-student minimum enrollment UVM requires to offer a class.

Now in its second year, the Ambrose fellowship has provided "a five-year stay of execution" for advanced Greek and Latin studies, said Franklin, who is trying to raise $2 million to keep the fellowship going.

At $10 a ticket, the concert he has organized won't go far toward meeting that goal, he acknowledged. "This is sort of more about raising public awareness."

The Call of Kinnaru formed as a pit band for the 2018 UVM classics department production of Helen and has since done gigs at universities, museums and conferences. Besides Franklin, its four members are Rachel Fickes on aulos, a double oboe common in the ancient world; lead singer Julia Irons, who played Helen in the 2018 production; and frame drummer Jamie Levis, who performs with Franklin in Burlington yacht rock band the Full Cleveland.

Their "Songs of Greek Mythology" set will start out acoustically, with a sort of Renaissance faire reenactors' sound, Franklin said, "and we gradually kind of morph into a more Spinal Tap, you know, rock version of ancient music. Not super loud or anything, but, you know, we have lights and a fog machine and projections." The latter are by Franklin's wife, cartoonist Glynnis Fawkes, whose work has been featured in the New Yorker.

Gawain and the Green Knight, composed of married couple Alexia Antoniou and Mike O'Malley, will sing about Greek gods and heroes, then join the Call of Kinnaru for a couple of rebetiko songs. Rebetiko, known as the Greek blues, was popular among Greece's urban working and lower classes in the early 20th century.

The bands will do a free matinee for high school students on December 2, ensuring that audiences both young and old will get a taste of classics. Ambrose, Franklin and their students are enthralled by the field of study — and want UVM to continue it.

Video by Keith Silva, courtesy of John Franklin

If a state school doesn't teach classics, Franklin said, "they'll just become the preserve of elite institutions."

Greek and Latin graduate student Holden, 22, is a beneficiary of the Ambrose fellowship. She graduated from UVM in the spring with majors in ancient Greek and classical civilization.

The classics program is small but strong, Holden said. She noted that students from other colleges are shocked when they hear she wrote prose in Greek as an undergrad: "'They offer prose composition, and they offer it to undergrads?'"

The opportunity "is awesome," said Holden, who teaches elementary Latin at UVM. Her 24 students are mostly freshmen and sophomores, she said. "I look at them, and I would think, I really wish they could have this opportunity as well. But I don't know that they will."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Classics Rock | Concert benefits an endangered UVM program"

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