Erik Nielsen is one of Vermont’s most celebrated composers but his brother Lars, a writer who died last June of brain cancer, has been much less visible — despite his fine prose, poetry and plays.
“Except for people in his close family and those who were in his writing or playwriting circles, hardly anybody knew his writing,” Erik told me. “I thought it would be great to celebrate that aspect of him so that his community could get to know more about that part of him that so few people knew. He really blossomed as a writer after the age of 50 and continued to keep developing.”
So Erik has brought together a cross-section of some of the best arts folks in central Vermont to celebrate the writing of Lars Nielsen, at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 26, at the Montpelier Unitarian Church. Participating will be will be baritone Thomas Beard, violist Elizabeth Reid, Northern Third Piano Quartet, Valley Players, and a select chorus directed by Jesse Pierpont.
On the program will be readings of Lars’ poetry and prose and three performances: a short play, “The Aspirants”; “The Falling of Trees” (2007) with poetry by Lars and music by Erik for piano quartet and baritone solo. The program will also premiere “A Psalm for a New Year,” which Erik wrote to Lars’ poetry immediately after Lars’ death, for chorus and solo viola.
Lars Nielsen was born in 1955 in Greenport, N.Y. When he died, he was associate program director for the Norwich University College of Graduate and Continuing Studies. But it is as an artist that brother Erik wants him remembered — and discovered.
“He started writing, I think, when he was in his early teens, but he did so many other things,” Erik said. “He was a historian and a scholar, but he started to write seriously after he got some job stability by getting a good position at Norwich University. That and the fact that his sons grew up and went out on their own gave him more time to concentrate on his writing. Sometimes he would be working on two or three writing projects at the same time — a novel, poetry, and one or two plays.”
A lot of Lars’ work didn’t see the light of day. Some of his short plays, however, found a home at the Valley Players’ TenFest, and one of his longer plays, “Haiku,” was performed several times.
“But that’s about the extent of it,” Erik said. “The only times people knew his poetry was if he went and gave a reading himself — and that didn’t happen that often.
“So we’re trying to rectify that, and try to interest a wider community in his work,” Erik said.
What Erik found special about Lars’ writing was his sense of humor.
“How he was able to incorporate so many disparate stylistic threads into it,” Erik said. “For instance, much of his poetry is informed by Anglo-Saxon poetry; often his imagery is dense in the same way that a lot of that poetry is dense. It’s filled with imagery that’s very concise.
“But he also manages, particularly in his plays, to mix in scholarship, history, politics — and zaniness — in one play,” Erik said.
He names as an example, Lars’ “Naming Opportunities.”
“It’s a version of ‘Hamlet’ in which the company can only mount a single scene, because they don’t have the money,” Erik said. “So they get somebody who has bid on the role of Hamlet to come up and play the role.”
It’s a woman with an incredible Brooklyn accent and she answers her cell phone in the middle of the ghost scene.
“It’s hilarious,” Erik, said, admitting to being biased. “Their aspiration is to have so much sponsorship that they can perform the entire play.”
On the May 26 program, the Valley Players will perform Lars’ “The Aspirants.”
“It takes place on a jet with all these people who do something different for a living — but they all want to be doing something else,” Erik said.
Erik described Lars as “a caring, creative, imaginative, generous and loving person,” but this program isn’t just for those who were close to Lars.
“It’s for everybody,” Eric said, “Anybody who is curious about the intersection of poetry and music.”