By MICHAEL COOPER APRIL 4, 2017
LEWISBURG, Pa. — Onstage, a choir intoned the names of coal miners whose deaths and injuries had landed them on the Pennsylvania Mining Accident index more than a century ago. In the lobby, members of the audience — some of whom came on free shuttle buses that picked them up from nearby coal towns — created an index of their own, writing about their mining ancestors in a small leather notebook held open with a coal paperweight. Someone had lost one grandfather to a mine collapse, the other to black lung disease. A woman wrote that her grandfather, a Lithuanian immigrant, had lost an eye in a mining accident and “died at age 50 from miner’s asthma + complications.” Coal is never far from the surface in northeastern Pennsylvania — as a shared heritage, if not always as actual deposits. So anticipation was already running high last week when the composer Julia Wolfe brought “Anthracite Fields,” her Pulitzer Prize-winning choral work honoring the sacrifices of Pennsylvania coal miners, back to her native state. Then, just before the concerts, coal became front-page news when President Trump moved to roll back pollution regulations in the name of trying to bring coal jobs back, promising miners and coal company executives assembled for a photo op that “you’re going back to work.” Ms. Wolfe’s 2014 oratorio on work, exploitation and unionization took on new overtones as coal became a central part of the Make America Great Again hymnal. “It feels to me like kind of a romanticization of coal miners — and that doesn’t feel good,” Ms. Wolfe said of the president’s action before a performance of “Anthracite Fields” on Saturday at Bucknell University here in Lewisburg, a college town nestled between coal regions. Just a short drive away, coal is still in use, with 50-pound bags selling for $8.99 at a gas station in Mount Carmel. Mining remains a point of pride, as a “When Coal Was King” mural in Shamokin attests. But it has also left many scars: from streams that run orange with mine drainage to the almost completely wiped-out community of Centralia, where an underground mine fire has been burning for more than half a century. “Anthracite Fields,” a five-part oratorio with roots in rock, classical chorales and the avant-garde, may look to the past, but it is anything but nostalgic. The opening intonation of the names is a long list, despite the fact that Ms. Wolfe limited herself to miners named John, and only Johns with one-syllable last names.The exploitation of the children who worked in the mines is brought home in another movement, “Breaker Boys.” And “Speech,” sung piercingly by the guitarist Mark Stewart, takes its text from John L. Lewis, the fiery leader of the United Mine Workers union: “Those who consume the coal, and you and I who benefit from that service because we live in comfort, we owe protection to those men and we owe the security to their families if they die.” As the residents of Pennsylvania’s coal regions turned out to hear the piece here, many were fiercely proud of their coal roots — but not anxious to see a large-scale return to mining. Another movement, “Flowers,” about the way families used to decorate their homes, was inspired by Ms. Wolfe’s interviews with Barbara Powell, 76, a coal miner’s daughter and granddaughter who grew up in Taylor and who now works in the gift shop of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton. Her father survived being buried alive in 1938. Like other miners, he usually shared the ends of his sandwiches with the rats, so they would be around to warn him if there was, she said, “water coming in, or the creaking of a mine roof.” During her senior year in high school a mine subsidence drove her and all her neighbors from their homes. Ms. Powell said in an interview that she was not keen on bringing back mining: “I don’t feel we should have our men go back into the coal mines again, I really don’t. And what it does to the environment!” After the performance, Robert McCormick, the grandson of a coal miner and a railway worker in Big Mine Run, said that the cavernous low notes of Ms. Wolfe’s opening gave him chills, reminding him of the blackness on their old front porch in the dead of night. He said he didn’t know what to think about the calls to bring back coal, noting that he has a nephew who works as a coal miner, operating machinery on a shift he does alone. “For him it’s a livelihood,” said Mr. McCormick, an artist who paints coal subjects. “But then there’s my concern over the environment, and his children and the future. I don’t know what the answer is.” Ms. Wolfe, one of the founders of the new-music collective Bang on a Can, has won the Pulitzer, been awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant and appeared (as a wolf, natch) on the PBS cartoon “Arthur.” She plans to continue writing pieces inspired by struggling American industries: Her next piece, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, will be about the women who worked in New York’s garment industry, including the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. With “Anthracite Fields” she tapped a vein — not just with critics and prize juries, but also with audiences. Commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club in Philadelphia, it has been performed in Pennsylvania at Wyoming Seminary in Kingston and, earlier last week, at Penn State. It will travel as far afield this year as Trenton, Amsterdam and Athens. Ms. Wolfe said that after every performance of the piece, listeners, some of whom are drawn more by the subject matter than by any curiosity about modern composers, come up to her afterward to tell her about their ties to mining. “I thought in California it wasn’t going to happen, or maybe it would be gold diggers,” she said, recalling a performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. “But someone came up to me afterwards and said: ‘My grandfather’s on your list.’” He was one of the men in the accident index: John Coyle. Correction: April 4, 2017An earlier version of this article erroneously included one location where Julia Wolfe’s choral work “Anthracite Fields” will be performed. It will be presented in Trenton, Amsterdam and Athens. It will not be a part of the Bang on a Can Marathon at the Brooklyn Museum. A version of this article appears in print on April 5, 2017, on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: An Oratorio Resonates in Coal Country.